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Politics and the campaign spouse; when partners become an issue


This week on It’s Just Politics we’re talking political spouses.

There’s a whole lot of politics behind the role of spouses in campaigns. Just this week we saw Ann Romney speak about her husband, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, at the Republican National Convention. Over and over again we heard that her job was to “humanize” him. And, she got generally good reviews for the speech.

But this business of where spouses fit into campaigns and political strategies is a tricky game. Campaigns want to get a candidate’s significant other - presumably the person who knows the candidate like no one else - out there, in the public, making a case for their partner.


Double-edged Sword

But, spouses can also easily become involved in controversies. Opponents, for example, tried to use Michelle Bachmann’s husband and his counseling of gay people on how they can become straight as a campaign issue. And, just a few months ago, one of President Obama’s political advisors, Hilary Rosen, made a comment about how Ann Romney has never worked a, “day in her life.” That comment poked a serious hornet’s nest.  It would seem that there are just certain things you can say about a candidate that you cannot say about their spouse.

There was the infamous question from the 1988 presidential campaign when debate moderator Bernard Shaw asked Governor Michael Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Many argued that it was Governor Dukakis’ passionless answer to this controversial question about his wife that cost him the election.  But, others, to do this day, argue that the question was totally out of line.

In 1992, Bill Clinton went on the attack during a primary against critics of Hillary Clinton telling California Governor Jerry Brown, “I don’t care what you say about me. But, you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife.”

Johnson vs. Rendon

All of this, brings us to the race in the 103rd state House district in northern Michigan, where Democratic challenger Lon Johnson is trying to unseat first-term Republican incumbent Bruce Rendon. Representative Rendon sent out a fundraising letter that calls attention to the fact that Johnson’s wife is Julianna Smoot. Smoot is one of the people running President Obama’s reelection campaign, and a superstar of Democratic politics. The letter points out the connections the couple has to prominent national Democrats, including some wealthy donors, and devotes a couple of paragraphs to Smoot.

In response, this week, Johnson released a letter that calls on his Republican opponent to lay off his wife. Johnson writes, “The debate around the issues and problems facing the voters of the 103rd District must always be conducted in an honest and direct fashion – between us.” He continues, “My wife, Bruce, is not one of these issues.” It was as we were reading this letter that it started to sound familiar to the movie The American President. In the movie, Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepard. President Shepard gets attacked by his political rival. The rival has been making an issue out of the widowed President’s new girlfriend. At the end of the movie, the President decides, much like Lon Johnson, that he isn’t going to take it anymore. At the end of the movie, the President addresses a press briefing and we couldn't help but see some similarities between the President's speech and Johnson's letter:

Johnson's Letter: How dare you attack my wife when you have constituents with these serious issues every day.

President Shepard: If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I'll show up. This is a time for serious men, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.

Johnson's Letter: Instead of attacking another man’s wife, I challenge you to spend your time putting the people of Northern Michigan ahead of the interests of your corporate allies and party bosses.

President Shepard: You want a character debate? Fine, but you better stick with me, 'cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.

What Lon Johnson is doing here is trying to essentially force an agreement on the fact that his wife is a senior official with President Obama’s campaign won’t be an issue in his campaign for state representative.  In the absence of that, make Bruce Rendon look like a bully if he does. Republicans are anxious to push that association, but at the same time, can’t make it look like they’re picking on Johnson’s wife instead of the candidate.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.