WASHINGTON -- The presidential candidacy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has unleashed something new upon the political landscape: the wives. More than any previous presidential campaign, the candidates' spouses - especially on the Democratic side - are stepping forward and speaking out.
Ironically, the trend of first lady as co-contender began with Mrs. Clinton when husband Bill introduced a twofer presidency. Elect me and you get my smart wife, too, he told voters. That worked out well.
Thanks to the debacle of Mrs. Clinton's attempted health care plan, the likelihood of her ever becoming the first female president seemed nil. In yet another irony, it was her husband's betrayal that saved her from obscurity. Public sympathy - as well as Mrs. Clinton's dignified public response to humiliation - trumped her lousy record as a policymaker and, voila, she was the junior senator from New York. Now she's nearly the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
The shift in perception of her from aggressive presidential wife to self-deprecating presidential candidate has caused a shift in the estrogen ecosphere. With a woman leading the race, the other females have ramped up their roles and rhetoric.
Republican wives are less out-front than their Democratic contemporaries, in part because Republicans tend toward more traditional roles, but also because those who have been outspoken have been slapped down. The once-talkative and confident Judith Giuliani has begun confining her commentary lately to golf after a few hard knocks in the media ring and a particularly bruising Vanity Fair profile.
Because of Mrs. Clinton, however, the Democrats are another story. Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards have taken their places front and center as they challenge the other candidates and defend their husbands. Like Mrs. Clinton, they're both lawyers who are unaccustomed to letting the men do all the talking.
When Ann Coulter attacked John Edwards, for instance, Elizabeth Edwards called the columnist live on Hardball and "politely" asked her to stop. And in a deft move that both objectified and minimized her husband's opponents, she said: "We can't make John black. We can't make him a woman. Those things get you a lot of press, worth a certain amount of fundraising dollars."
Mrs. Edwards has become bad cop to her husband's good cop, in other words. She carries the family aggression for him so that he can remain the laid-back, deeply caring guy.
What Mrs. Edwards is doing for her husband, we all do to some degree in our marriages. And though we're all entitled to our opinions, those opinions have consequences in politics.
Michelle Obama has taken a slightly different tack. She carries the family values, making sure voters know she's at home each night to tuck in the couple's two girls. As opposed to Elizabeth Edwards, perhaps, whose young children are on the road with their parents?
While Barack Obama stays above the fray, drawing adoring crowds and focusing on issues, his wife fleshes out his human dimension. The Illinois senator is not the "next messiah, who's going to fix it all," she told USA Today.
Whether voters want their first ladies to be full presidential partners rather than silent sidekicks remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton is learning that becoming the first female president of the United States requires not only defeating the men. She has to beat their wives, too.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.