LOS ANGELES – The conventional wisdom in politics has always been that spouses don’t matter.
Everyone loved Betty Ford for her forthrightness and honesty, but it didn’t save her husband Gerald Ford from electoral defeat. Nancy Reagan, she of expensive china and astrologers, was not much loved until after she left the White House and spent years devoted to her ill husband; but even at her worst, it would be hard to find anyone who voted against Ronnie because his wife was said to have fancy taste and not much affection for the children of his first marriage.
Political spouses have generally tended to remain very much in the background. Washington has always been described as the city of powerful men and the women they married, but no one would accuse Hillary Clinton or Liddy Dole or Teresa Heinz Kerry of being background gals, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find many voters who cast their votes for their husbands, or refused to, based on their opinion of the spouses.
To be sure, this year promised to be different, with a former First Lady running for president and a former president running for First Spouse. Even so, beyond his role as a strategist and a fundraiser, both of which he clearly excels at, there are enough people who say they love Bill and would never vote for Hillary, and even vice versa, to confirm the essential truth of the conventional wisdom: If Hillary wins, it will be her triumph; if she loses, her defeat.
The big surprise this year is not the prominence of Hillary’s well-known husband, but the major role being played by the lesser-known spouses of the other candidates.
Elizabeth Edwards is obviously the first to come to mind; for better or for worse, and the pundits are not in accord as to that, since her announcement of the recurrence of her cancer, she has probably gotten more attention than her candidate husband, most of it extremely positive.
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t admire and respect Elizabeth Edwards, doesn’t sympathize with her plight, doesn’t find themselves counting their blessings as they watch this courageous woman get out there and stump for her husband. She’s about the only person in the field, candidate or spouse, who could attack Hillary Clinton for choosing to be a working mother all these years and get away with it.
There are plenty of us who have tried to take on Ann Coulter, but no one has done it with the success of Elizabeth Edwards. There isn’t a family in America that hasn’t been touched by cancer, and in that sense, Elizabeth Edwards touches us all. Whether it will actually help her husband win votes remains to be seen; but her encounter with Coulter was certainly a fundraising winner, and Edwards remains ahead in recent Iowa polls, which if it holds, could give him momentum against Clinton and Obama in Nevada and South Carolina. If Obama stumbles, John and Elizabeth Edwards will immediately emerge as the alternatives to Hill and Bill.
But the spouse who has commanded the most attention this week is neither Mrs. Edwards nor Mr. Clinton, but the far lesser known wife of the not-yet candidate Fred Thompson. Jeri Thompson, like Mrs. Giuliani and Mrs. Gingrich, is relatively new to her role as political spouse, and while her husband had been divorced 10 years before they married, unlike Rudy and Newt, who moved from spouse to girlfriend to spouse rather quickly (itself a potential issue for voters, not to mention their own families), Jeri Thompson’s age and her looks have already raised questions in the press and the blogosphere about how "family values" voters on the Republican side will react to a woman who has repeatedly been described as a "trophy wife."
But it is not her age or her looks that has commanded attention this week, but her role in her husband’s campaign.
Fred Thompson was a frontrunner from the moment he hinted that he would enter the race; but as time passed and the date of his expected announcement kept being put off, the bloom started coming off the rose. Inevitably, his record was going to be scoured; the problem is that when you don’t have an actual campaign to deal with the attacks -- whether on your work as a lawyer or lobbyist or your energy as a senator -- it’s harder to counter them effectively.
Convincing people to contribute to a non-candidate is more difficult than persuading them to give to some who’s in the race and it’s not really a surprise to see that Thompson has failed, by a reported $2 million dollars, to meet this summer’s goal of $5 million by the July 31 report.
Meanwhile, the not-yet campaign has suffered daily defections and continued shakeups, and what makes this particularly striking is that nearly every one of the departed has got in touch with someone in the media or the web to place blame on Jeri Thompson for supposedly "micromanaging" her husband’s campaign. Only the attention to the spat between Clinton and Obama has saved Mrs. Thompson from emerging as the "villain of the week."
Mrs. Thompson, it is being said, is involved in everything from interviewing senior staffers and approving their hiring to choosing colors for bumper stickers. Shades of Hillary circa 1991?
How much is sexism and sour grapes, and how much is a sign of a campaign yet to find its moorings, is hard to say. But in a year in which spouses, marriages, divorces and family are likely to come in for more scrutiny than ever before, and in which the conventional wisdom that spouses don’t matter is at least open to challenge, Jeri Thompson may find more than her looks coming under the microscope.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.