CONTRIBUTORS

Ann Romney and Michelle Obama are totally fair game

Posted July 20, 2012, at 2:02 p.m.

Frankly, I’ve seen enough of dancin’ Rafalca Romney.

Watching MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell mock “the breathtakingly expensive so-called sport of dressage as a therapeutic option for Ann Romney’s multiple sclerosis” was about as hilarious as that time Rush Limbaugh questioned whether Michael J. Fox was exaggerating the symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease. And it’s extra irksome to see O’Donnell, the longtime aide to New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose biography was aptly subtitled “the intellectual in public life,” mimic the long anti-intellectual Republican tradition of “Frenchifying” the opposition, a la Limbaugh calling John Kerry “Jean Cheri.”

Still, I see nothing the least bit objectionable about the Democratic National Committee ad that featured old Rafalca prancing around, alongside clips of Mitt Romney hemming and hawing about releasing his tax returns. “Do we really want a president who dances around the issues?” it asked.

By current standards — what, no Hitler or bin Laden? — the commercial was downright civilized. Yet it was taken down after complaints that it constituted an unseemly attack on Mrs. Romney, who was neither seen in nor even mentioned in the ad.

“Shame on them, really,” said former Minnesota governor and possible Romney vice-presidential pick Tim Pawlenty, who had not actually seen it, but nevertheless pronounced it “really, really low.”

It was? I’ve routinely defended women in politics, spouses included, of course, from unfair attacks — from racist “jokes” involving Michelle Obama to trivial slams on Ann Romney’s designer T-shirt. But spouses are full partners in the current campaigns, strategically and every other way, just as they ought to be.

And at some point — right now would be my preference — we’ve got to stop pretending that they are by definition off-limits, or ought to be.

After all, Michelle Obama is heading up a new get-out-the-vote initiative — the “It Takes One” program to encourage grassroots voter turnout efforts. She’s cutting ads, and as the Post’s Krissah Thompson wrote today, taking on an “overtly political role that is rare for a first lady.”

Ann Romney, meanwhile, is raising money and giving a series of high-profile interviews — answering questions about possible veep choices by saying “we” haven’t made any decision yet.

These women are leading the charge, not sitting home asking how it went, and as they stand on stage, microphones in hand, it’s absurd and even infantilizing to claim that they should be left alone.

Unlike their children, they signed up for this, or so we’ve been told. Politics is a family business, and those involved in it can’t have it both ways. And while we’re at it, can we please retire the tired formulation that any political wife is her husband’s “secret weapon”?

On Thursday, the Democrats signaled that they aren’t ready for that: “Our use of the Romneys’ dressage horse was not meant to offend Mrs. Romney in any way, and we regret it if it did,” said DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse. “We have no plans to invoke the horse any further.”

The horseplay was nothing to apologize for; they certainly weren’t referencing Mrs. Romney’s M.S. in any way. Nor was there anything wrong with Romney invoking the wife of ’04 Democratic nominee John Kerry recently:

“John Kerry ran for president; you know, his wife, who has hundreds of millions of dollars — she never released her tax returns,” Romney told Fox News. “Somehow, this wasn’t an issue.” Sure it was. It also wasn’t quite the same, because Teresa Heinz Kerry wasn’t the candidate. But I have every confidence that the senator’s wife, who really did take a lot of heat during his presidential run, is holding up admirably under the pressure.

Mrs. Romney again made headlines on Thursday when she told Robin Roberts of ABC News that “you people,” — c’est nous! — won’t be wheedling any more financial info out of anyone chez Romney.

“We give 10 percent of our income to our church every year,” she said, exactly like the full financial partner she is. “Do you think that’s the kind of person that’s tried to hide things? No, he is so good about it.”

I wish Roberts had asked just what it is he’s so good about. But she did ask why, then, Romney isn’t just coughing up the returns, like any number of his fellow Republicans have done and have urged him to do.

“We’ve given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and about how we live our life,” Ann Romney said.

The imperious-sounding “you people” landed with a thud, of course, and although it did sound like she hoped she’d get the same “oh, you poor thing!” response as at the country club, I suspect the “people” she intended to invoke are journalists — a slam that’s usually so crowd-pleasing she might be forgiven for thinking it would be an applause line.

As a top player in her husband’s campaign, in any case, she’ll have lots of time between now and November to make up for it.

Melinda Henneberger is a political writer for The Washington Post.

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