Pitting the candidate’s wives against each other was unfair, but riveting.
In the anticipated show-down between the set-piece convention speeches of Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, we didn’t get to learn about them. What we got was crafted testimony about their husband’s traits.
Ann told the human side of a husband who comes across as stilted and unemotive. She told a story of working hard, and a loving family.
Michelle told a more politically charged narrative – the story of her husband’s aspirations. She painted an optimistic picture of living through tough times to live the American dream.
It’s hard to say one was better than the other, because their jobs were different. Ann’s job was to humanise Mitt. She succeeded. Michelle’s job was to tell her husband’s story in her words. She succeeded.
Which speech had the most effect?
According to Twitter, it was Michelle’s speech, which outdid all the other Republican and Democratic speeches for the amount of tweets. So the Tweeterati were impressed – big deal.
For my money, the speech with the most impact was the one that had the most important job to do. That was Ann Romney’s speech. Mitt needed someone ordinary to say “you can trust him to do the job”. Obama does fine enough for himself. Michelle just iced the cake differently.
Common wisdom is that you can tell a lot about someone from their spouse. That’s why some politicians use spouses in their politicking. It tells another part of their story. At its most basic, it says “someone loves me, I must be okay.”
I have strong reservations about using spouses or immediate family. It’s true that they signal things about the politician which are important aspects of their judgement and attitude to life. But it’s a tough call. Politics and public life can be brutal. Once you opt into it, you cannot complain or opt out easily when it works against you.
One of the strongest reasons for not involving spouse or kids is that they are so often a politician’s safe-zone. Their shelter. Their reference point. When the day has been tough, you need to return to a family or household with a different perspective on life and priorities. You need a family who can keep you grounded in normality.
If that family is the subject of news, and politics, they can’t have normal lives, so they can’t help the politician.
Strategists always urge politicians to use family and spouse for political gain, but it is not in the long term interests of politicians or their families.
That’s why I’m ambivalent about the riveting spectacle of spousal speeches.