13 June 2012

First Ladyism: the dynastic tendency of egalitarian politics

Michelle Obama sent me a begging letter the other day. It didn't read much differently from the ones her husband sends -- they may well come from the same ghostwriter -- except that partisanship is minimized almost to the point of absence in the First Lady's missive. While the President alternates between denouncing the Republicans by name and not mentioning them, Mrs. Obama might leave you believing that no one actually opposes her husband's policies. She poses the same stark choices the President does between "you're on your own" and "I am my brother's keeper," but can't quite bring herself to admit that anyone actually endorses the first option. This is perhaps a politically calculated reticence, guided by a belief that the First Lady shouldn't stoop to personalities in a political campaign. Why, then, is the First Lady sending me a begging letter for campaign donations? Does Ann Romney send similar stuff to National Review or Weekly Standard readers? I suspect not, and the suspicion got me wondering.

The Democratic party has cultivated First Lady cults since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt. Even the apolitical Jackie Kennedy had a cult, though that was inspired more by the fact that, by First Lady standards, Mrs. Kennedy was a goddess of glamor. More typical, however, is the assumption that the President's wife is an important partner in his political work who also shares some of his authority. Even the Republicans have come around to this view somewhat, but the Democrats still surpass them in their presumption that the First Lady is entitled to some kind of political power. There is, of course, no constitutional basis for such a belief, and even John Adams, for whom his wife was an informal political adviser, would never have imagined nor desired a public role for  Abigail as a spokesperson or advocate. Yet as liberal culture has taken a more egalitarian view of marriage, it has seemed to endorse a sense of entitlement on the part of political wives that really has no place in a representative democracy. The idea seems to be that it would be unfair for the husband to exclude the wife from his sphere of work and relegate her to the domestic sphere, even if it happens that voters elected the husband only, and not the wife, to that sphere of work. The Clintons made the modern understanding overt with their 1992 pitch that voters would get two for the price of one. Now we have Mrs. Obama asking for donations, while the news reports that the Obama campaign is depending on her strong personal popularity to help keep voters loyal to her husband. Should the President win a second term -- and possibly even if he doesn't -- we might expect to see Michelle Obama seek political office in her own right, as did the wife of the last Democratic President. Meanwhile, I don't expect to see Laura Bush run for any office, ever.

Is there a paradox at work when the more egalitarian of the two major political parties seems to practice a more dynastic form of politics? Republicans aren't immune from dynasticism of course, with two ex-President Bushes among us and a former Gov. Bush waiting his turn with apparently growing impatience, and a Gov. Romney, son of Gov. Romney, now contending for the White House. But there seems to be a qualitative difference between a son following a father into power -- that idea goes back to John Adams and his son -- and the Democratic party tendency to elevate the First Lady into a kind of queen with inherent powers. Feminism rather than plain egalitarianism may make the difference, since the ostensibly egalitarian Communist party of the Soviet Union gave no such prominence to leaders' wives until Raisa Gorbachev's emergence arguably signaled a terminal decadence. It may be, too, that Democrats are guilty of the charge Republicans make (hypocritically?) against them, that they regard the President as ideally a benevolent, energetic monarch and his household as a royal family who have shares of his power. In simpler terms, Democrats may just long for a wise leader (rather than a strictly constitutional one) whose ideal characteristics include treating his wife as an equal partner and full-time adviser, while that isn't part of the Republican ideal.

Interesting in this regard is the way Mitt Romney's father used Mitt's mother politically. George Romney had been shunted to a minor post in the Nixon cabinet after the 1968 election and wanted to reassert his control of Michigan politics. He tried to do this by getting his wife to run for a U.S. Senate seat in 1970. The elder Romney seems to have bullied Republicans into supporting her, while everyone understood that Senator Romney would have been a plain puppet of her husband. As it happened, she was humiliated by a landslide loss to an incumbent Democrat, despite young Mitt's efforts on the campaign trail. The entire episode reflects badly on George Romney, but is that because he attempted dynastic politics or because it was clear that Mrs. Romney would not have been her own woman in the Senate?  But is the Democratic attitude that First Ladyship entitles a woman to a political career, or even to campaign for political donations, much better? In both cases, politicians are playing the sort of brand-name politics on which Bipolarchy itself depends. Call me old fashioned, but my understanding remains that I don't elect the President's spouse, or any political spouse, to any political responsibility whatsoever, and that any delegation of responsibility to the spouse only increases dynastic tendencies in American politics. Getting that otherwise harmless letter from Mrs. Obama just rubbed me the wrong way -- though readers may rest assured that it makes me no more likely to vote Republican in November.

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