Political spouses play many roles. They’re cheerleaders-in-chief. The candidate’s biggest fans and greatest moral supporters. Or sometimes the spouse is a political liability and a detriment to the candidate’s aspirations.
At the highest levels, the political spouse is most often a woman, who, even if she’s a successful professional in her own right, must adopt a more traditional role for the campaign. Now, we’re seeing more husbands come into this role and Bill Clinton is providing a constructive example for other campaigns to follow.
The job description of political spouse isn’t an attractive one. It involves long hours on the campaign trail, staying at home with the kids to make sure “real life” continues while the campaign unfolds and always being on the receiving end of criticism for looks, what they’ve said and anything they do or have done.
Where do I sign up, right? Not exactly.
A political spouse often doesn’t get to select his or her lot in life. But they’re along for the ride, through the ups and the downs and sometimes they even play a role in creating those memorable moments on the campaign.
Working a crowd of volunteers in a small town, thanking them for their time and effort on behalf of the candidate is an important role for a political spouse. They’re somewhere the candidate cannot be and they can help humanize a candidate and help display a type of warmth that may not be obvious when his or her partner is stumping from event to event.
At the presidential level, we have only a few examples of a man taking on the role of political spouse. Bob Dole demonstrated his support of wife, Liddy, in 2000, but she pulled out of the race before a vote was cast. In 2008, we had Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska, and her husband, Todd Palin. But the “First Dude” played a limited role in that campaign. And now, once again, we have Bill Clinton.
Remembered for his very combative style in 2008, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went head-to-head for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bill took his time emerging on the trail this cycle. His first official appearances in New Hampshire and Iowa were in January 2016. It’s unique to have a former office holder campaigning for a spouse seeking the same job. But Bill appears to be embracing the role of supporter-in-chief, rather than spotlight stealer.
During an October forum Bill Clinton said, "There has been a lot of talk about breaking the glass ceiling. I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse." It’s a line other female candidates with male husbands should think about employing.
Still, the former president being back on the trail has opened up controversies from the past. If he’s going to stump for Hillary, Bill’s record is fair game. In fact, Republican candidate Donald Trump wasted no time in opening the floodgates of criticism.
But the assets of having a very popular former commander-in-chief on the road during the primaries outweighs the negatives for the Clinton family. If Bill can be the explainer, the humanizer and the rallier, then his past — well known to the Democratic base — won’t be the deciding factor as Hillary pursues the nomination.
The male political spouse is a new phenomenon on the presidential campaign. Being able to demonstrate his wife’s warmth and “female” attributes is just one of the tasks. Demonstrating equality at home and in the workplace is another. Moreover, being her defender, her fan and her friend while traveling hundreds of thousands of miles is just as important.
This cycle we’ve seen some impressive political spouses take to the pavement to stump for their partners. Frank Fiorina is a former telecommunications executive, lending even more business gravitas to his candidate wife, Carly. Pat Christie was a Wall Street bond trader before she left to support husband Chris Christie’s Republican presidential aspirations. Heidi Cruz may be the most visible spouse on the Republican side, having put her work at Goldman Sachs on hold to act as fundraiser, family organizer and meeter-in-chief to support her husband, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
It’s certainly not an easy job for someone unfamiliar to public scrutiny. We’ve seen the criticism that can follow a candidate because of their spouse. Jeb Bush felt compelled to answer criticism of his wife, Columba’s, penchant for buying expensive jewelry. And Jeanette Rubio, wife of Florida Sen. Marco (R), was the focus of some unwanted attention due to speeding tickets.
All this information, discovered by opposition research, is now fodder for other candidates. Campaigns have adopted the mantra that nothing is private if your spouse is running for office.
But back to Bill, whose role as husband on the campaign trail is to humanize his wife. We may think we know all there is to know about the Clinton family, but he’s lived with her for years, raised a child with her, and is now a grandfather. He can tell you why Hillary is running in a manner that she cannot. Bill can serve as her softer side, a role she played for many years when he was the candidate. As the top surrogate for the Clinton campaign, Bill will extend the time and reach of the campaign, and we know he’s a prolific fundraiser in his own right.
Bill has tried out for this role before. While he didn’t become First Man in 2008, he’s hoping his role as campaign spouse changes the outcome in 2016. If other campaigns follow his model closely, there could be more men breaking the glass ceiling of political spouse.
Carrie Giddins Pergram is a political consultant and professor of political communications.