On the morning of September 5 this past fall I woke up and started writing, for this blog, “I get the feeling that the election got decided last night during Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.” I thought better of writing something so cheeky when the election was still up in the air, so I put it aside with the pile of unfinished junk on my desktop.
Well, it’s over. We’re not trying to get anyone elected. And it’s time for a more sober look at what I was thinking – and for those of us on the left to find our sense of humor again. To explain why it all was over by September, I could list some nuggets from Michelle’s speech, such as her father’s life story, suggesting that Democrats understand bread and butter issues better than their opponents, but really you don’t have to look any closer than her bare arms, and her knack for talking about the First Relationship in terms that are familiar, warm, and affirming.
We don’t elect presidents, we elect first ladies! You could make a better case for first ladies determining elections than you could for lots of other much-discussed factors, such as running mates or (boring!) policies.
To the public, the first lady is the woman we want leading the country: the mother we want, and the co-creater of the sex life we want inside the conjugal bed of the commander-in-chief. Often it comes down to one versus the other. Mother versus sex partner. When the nation wants a mother, it elects the candidate whose wife we understand as a mother. When it wants to leave the safety of mom and the nuclear family, it elects the “modern” first lady, the smart, daringly independent, and youthful (i.e. sexually active) leader.
It’s not a matter of iconography or representation. It’s visceral, it’s about who exactly we want in that place, and it’s by no means bipartisan. It affects Democrats differently than Republicans because the public has enormously different expectations. Of course, we want mom on Thanksgiving AND sexy wife on wedding night all the time, but we know we won’t be able to get all of our supporters to the polls for any woman who is too much of one or the other for our side’s taste. That’s why elections seem to be about anticipating what kind of family and sex life the electorate will be in the mood for by the end of the year.
The Democratic Party since F.D.R. only wins the presidency when it seizes the banner of a youthful sex life in the Whitehouse.
Before you go accusing me of being a perv for imagining that Barack and Michelle have the Everything But the Girl Pandora station going in the Lincoln bedroom during twice-weekly afternoon delight (replacing George and Laura’s Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits CD, which they got out for anniversaries and Valentine’s Days only), hear me out! Here are the last fifty years of presidential elections, broken down First Lady vs. First Lady. Remember that certain other factors do sometimes contribute to who gets elected: their husbands’ qualifications, incumbency, demographic headwinds, criminal records, etc., but here’s what has gone on since 1960.
1960 Pat Nixon vs. Jackie Kennedy. The election when the Democratic Party found its prototype for the coming century. No more Eleanor Roosevelt (God bless her memory!) wannabes. Young, stylish, and sexy. The country isn’t sure it’s ready, but the scales tip for Jackie in the end.
1964 Lady Bird Johnson vs. Margaret Goldwater. A heavily favored incumbent! Doesn’t count really, but doesn’t disprove my theory either.
1968 Muriel Humphrey vs. Pat Nixon. The first example of Democrats shooting themselves in the foot – or, an assassin shooting the husband of their would-be savior, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, wife of Bobbie – who would have trounced Pat.
1972 Pat Nixon vs. Eleanor Stegeberg McGovern. Another incumbent, doesn’t really count.
1976 Betty Ford vs. Roslyn Carter. You could say this was another anomaly of an election, on account of Watergate, but Roslyn was definitely a new kind of Better Homes and Garden mom, snapping her fingers to Atlanta Rhythm Section, emerging at the time.
1980 Roslyn Carter vs. Nancy Reagan. Damn Republicans! They figured out how to have it both ways. Sex Symbol AND Grandparent. Find two retired sex symbols. Ron and Nancy both. Such a potent combination it knocked out an incumbent Democrat, although I’d argue that it was a no-brainer since the Democrats were still trying to recast Eleanor Roosevelt instead of recasting Jackie Kennedy.
1984 Nancy Reagan vs. Joan Mondale. Incumbent, unstoppable.
1988 Barbara Bush vs. Kitty Dukakis. An interesting election, since Kitty was intelligent and “modern” without the sex symbol status. The Democrats were thinking along the right lines, but got spooked when Gary Hart got busted during the primary with his hands all over Donna Rice, having not yet faced adultery in the face and stared it down.
1992 Barbara Bush vs. Hillary Clinton. A return to form! Mom versus Big sister with an advanced degree. A big step in the right direction. Pair Hillary with a rock and roll husband, and it’s over.
1996 Hillary Clinton vs. Elizabeth Dole. An incumbent, and a no-brainer besides.
2000 Tipper Gore vs. Laura Bush. Democrats! The only way you could lose this election is if you run…Tipper Gore?!
2004 Laura Bush vs. Teresa Heinz Kerry. Despite stopping the tide of political idiocy that followed September 11, the growing realization that Iraq was a disastrous mistake, and the obvious case for a return to Clintonomics, the Democrats ran a camera-shy, billionaire for first lady, five years older than their official candidate, who joked about having married her for the money. How this party EVER wins elections, I don’t know.
2008 Michelle Obama vs. Cindy McCain. This was epic! A black, working mom and lawyer from Chicago against a bleached blonde sorority officer who grew up in a wealthy family of Arizona beer distributors. Two kinds of sexy, one for a shrinking, and one for an expanding fraction of the electorate.
Michelle was a conscientious mother whose workplace credentials and general attractiveness were all the more likable on account of her all-too-apparent awkwardness at public speaking. She was glamorous on a budget. Unlike Hillary circa 1992, you never thought Michelle had any ambitions for herself, and none of the stigma of people who gain access to the inner circles of power via their spouse’s connections. So you conceded nothing to her critics. Anyone who doesn’t like her is just an asshole, you could figure.
In 2012, Michelle and her husband faced a non-threat from a Mormon throwback to Pat Nixon and her husband. She won, of course. The media were watching the jobs reports and following the daily gotcha videos that make politics so much dumber than ever, telling us it was going to be close, when they should have been looking at the wives. It was over in September.