On Tuesday, Michelle Obama, wife of floundering presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, got aggressive. "One of the things, the important aspects of this race, is role modeling what good families should look like," Mrs. Obama told a crowd in Illinois. "And my view is that if you can't run your own house, you certainly can't run the White House."
This was an oblique slap at Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who has famously failed to keep her house in order. Michelle Obama's statements made her the second Democratic candidate's wife to act as attack dog during this election cycle. The first attack dog wife, Elizabeth Edwards, rapped Hillary across the knuckles in July for failing to adequately represent women's issues. "[S]ometimes," Mrs. Edwards stated, "you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women's issues."
The 2008 presidential race is producing the most bellicose crop of first lady candidates in American history. First lady candidates used to be of the Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter sort -- helpful, caring, sympathetic. Even the most controversial first ladies -- women like Eleanor Roosevelt -- were controversial for their personal political activities, not for their shock-troop status. Now our first lady candidates are fire-breathing stump orators.
What happened? Hillary Clinton.
When Hillary ran for first lady in 1992, she acted as Bill Clinton's shield and spear: She shielded him from criticism -- most famously, criticism about his sexual promiscuity -- while taking a front-and-center role in his campaign.
During the 1992 race, Bill proudly announced that if Americans elected her husband, they would be getting "two for the price of one." Hillary took the opportunity to champion radical social policy and attack incumbent George H.W. Bush. In March 1992, Hillary insulted homemakers everywhere, caustically remarking, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life." In a May 1992 interview with Vanity Fair, Hillary stated (without evidence) that Bush had a mistress.
When Republicans reacted by attacking Hillary's radicalism, Bill played victim, clucking, "They're running against Hillary, basically trying to make it a Willie Horton-like issue. And it's not really about Hillary, but they've had to grossly distort and outright falsify her views in order to attack her. What they're trying to do is make it kind of a Willie Horton kind of thing against all independent working women." Bill targeted Bush in particular. "If he wants to run against my wife," Bill joked, "it's OK with me if he wants to be first lady -- but I don't want to live with him."
The Clintons exploited traditional notions of fair play with regard to candidates' wives in 1992 and 1996. Hillary revolutionized the art of spousal politics by implementing a simple strategy: Make the woman the emissary; have her slam her husband's political opponents; play the victim when political opponents respond.
Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards have learned Hillary's lessons well. Obama's comments are surely the first of many. Edwards has already led the charge against President Bush, Sen. Obama, Ann Coulter and Hillary.
Hillary is the frontrunner and will certainly become the main target of her challengers' wives' ire. And she is stuck between a rock and a hard place. If she responds to Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards directly, she will be seen as a bully. If she allows President Clinton to counter their remarks, she will be seen as a weakling, sending her husband out to defend her against the other ladies. Ah, the irony.
Hillary changed the rules of the game in 1992 with her passive-aggressive victim routine. Now, Hillary will have to lie in the bed she made a decade and a half ago. It won't be comfortable.