One of the things I love best about political commentary is how quickly it gets ahead of itself. I speak of the Michelle 2016 drumbeat.
I don’t mean Bachmann; hence, two l’s. I mean Obama. And in truth it’s less drumbeat than flute warble, but still. It’s out there: a vague murmuring about whether the first lady might, for example, seek a United States Senate seat from Illinois.
And it’s interesting, not for its plausibility — by most accounts she’s repulsed by the rough-and-tumble of Washington — as for a question it raises about political dynasties:
Why don’t and why shouldn’t they extend to spouses as often as they do to siblings and children? Could Hillary Clinton, initially derided as a two-for-one upstart, turn out to be something of a harbinger?
With those questions in mind, I recently visited Iowa, where an especially compelling Congressional race is unfolding in Iowa’s redrawn fourth district.
It pits Representative Steve King, a five-term Republican, against Christie Vilsack, a Democrat whose last name just might ring a bell. Her husband, Tom, is the United States agriculture secretary, and previously served eight years as Iowa’s governor. As the state’s first lady, she was visible and popular enough to be given a prime speaking spot at the Democrats’ national convention in 2004.
Democrats really loathe King. It’s understandable. He once described the abuses at Abu Ghraib as mere “hazing.” He predicted that terrorists would be “dancing in the streets” if Barack Obama won in 2008.
The following year, he stood alone and cast the sole vote in Congress against a plaque in tribute to slaves who worked on the construction of the Capitol. No lemming, he.
His Congressional campaigns have been cakewalks, one after another. Vilsack presents his stiffest Democratic competition yet.
She’s tilting at Iowa history. Along with just one other state (Mississippi), Iowa has never had a woman as governor or in the United States Congress.
And while that may seem incredible, it reflects the frustrating, sad limits of women’s progress in politics across the board. They represent 16.8 percent of the current Congress.
It’s in that context that I wonder if it wouldn’t make good sense to get more wives into the game. That might sound regressive at first blush, inasmuch as it suggests self-definition and advantage through marriage.
But in American politics many sons — and some daughters — have exploited the benefit of blood relation, which is no more (and arguably less) earned. It gives them quick name recognition and expedited access to a network of donors, assets that can be seized by a spouse as well. In fact Vilsack, keeping fund-raising pace with King, has already raised more money than the combined total of the Democratic challengers in his five previous races.
Those sons and daughters are said — sweetly — to have learned at a parent’s knee. Doesn’t a first lady learn as much at her spouse’s elbow?
“We’re in a unique position to have a front-row seat and actually be involved in the making of policy,” Vilsack said over coffee in Ames. As first lady she gave many speeches, logged many road miles, forged many alliances.
And when you consider cultural changes and employment trends over the last half century, a politician’s wife today is more likely than she was decades ago to have an independent professional history to point to.
“Women objectively are way more qualified than they’ve ever been before,” said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.
But she noted that while there’s been a rich history of widows succeeding their husbands in office, there’s been a less noteworthy one of wives following in the footsteps of spouses still alive.
Toward the end of eight years as the first lady of Oklahoma, Cathy Keating ran for the United States Congress, but didn’t prevail in the Republican primary. Janet Huckabee was the Republican nominee for Arkansas secretary of state while her husband, Mike, was the state’s governor. She lost in the general election.
Vilsack was a teacher — middle school, high school, college — for 25 years. With no prior experience in elective office itself, she must persuade voters that she’s not a legacy or nepotism candidate. And while she’s a lifelong Iowan, she moved to Ames, which is in the fourth district, in order to run. She had never previously lived in the district.
But politics, she said, has long fascinated her. It was the subject of her very first conversation with her future husband, who sought reassurance about her Democratic leanings by asking her, on the eve of the 1968 presidential election, “Who are you going to support: Humphrey or Nixon?”
“That was his pickup line,” she told me, laughing. “He said it worked and he didn’t need another one.”