Thursday, January 08, 2004

The Doctor's Wife: Peggy Noonan finds Doctor Dean refreshingly candid, even if she doesn't really like him much:
I do not know how Howard Dean will do in Iowa, but I am one of those who think the Democrats will nominate Mr. Dean, and so I would like to like him and be able to imagine that many others will. I also would like to like him because now and then he says something that shows promise. Yesterday when asked if he ever wonders what would Jesus do, he replied: "No." This was so candid, I loved it. In the same interview, when asked if his wife would join him on the campaign trail, he said, "I do not intend to drag her around because I think I need her as a prop on the campaign trail." Political spouses often are dragged around as props. It's not terrible to say so. It's refreshing.
The whole piece is cute in the Noonan-patented way, but she does unintentionally bring up a big Dean liability: The Wife. What will Howard do about the Missus? Honestly, do you even know her name? Have times changed? Is the Political Wife no longer a necessary check box under dramatis personae in a campaign? Don't bet on it. Judith Steinberg Dean will need to be on the stump for her husband for him to have a prayer in the general election. Why? Because it makes us comfortable. We want our presidents to be recognizably normal, which is why Hillary, despite her much-vaunted co-presidency push, was forced to pretend that she and Bill have a normal marriage. Remember after Bill admitted to, um, a little bit of Monica? The press was quite open in acknowledging that the public expected Hillary to show some anger, express a feeling of betrayal. Now, we all knew that this was not Bill's first trip outside the marital vows, and it was pretty obvious that fidelity was not the prime mover in the Clinton marriage. Still, the public looked for the traditional husband-wife interaction, even if was simply the kabuki the Clintons gave them.

They'll expect it, too, from the Deans. So far, though, Judith Steinberg (that's Mrs. Dean's name) has made it pretty clear that she won't play the designated role. Howard has tried to spin it, which means that he recognizes how important his wife's role is.

"We support each other's goals in life. Her goal is to be a good doctor and a good mom. I think that's a pretty good goal and I support that," Dean told reporters from several media outlets on his campaign bus Tuesday night.

"I do not intend to drag her around because I think I need her as a prop on the campaign trail," he added.

Note how Dean plays it: He won't "drag" her around as a "prop." It's clearly a pre-emptive attempt to inoculate his campaign against a perceived threat. It's subtle enough that it might work for now, but it's a pretty transparent move. In fact, it's a bit like the move several other candidates have made as Dean has scooped up endorsements. They've essentially said that they won't "play the endorsement-counting game." Of course not, since they haven't any to count! If they had them, they'd sure as hell be playing.

I think Dean is moving too fast for the wife issue to count for much in the primaries. The Dems are too angry to care right now, particularly the Dems who turn out in January and February who will give Dean his momentum. But after the conventions, as the summer doldrums give way to the general campaign frenzy, Laura Bush, shy as she may be (or is billed), will be speaking to swing voters, to moderate women's groups, to suburban parents. Don't underestimate how much of a boost that gives Bush. So will we see Judith Steinberg, billed forthrightly as "Mrs. Dean," out on the hustings, whatever the hell hustings are, standing by her man? Bet on it. Dean is playing coy right now about not "dragging" her around. When he starts to drag her around, you'll know his consultants have told him that the latest polls show Dubya beating the gender gap.

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