What's the Secret to a Political Marriage That Works?

Joe Mathews is a former staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau and the author of "The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy." Contact him at magazine@latimes.com.

One afternoon early in his second year as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger flew home from Sacramento to Los Angeles with a vexing political problem. He needed to cut $2 billion from the budget he was putting together, and any of his best options for doing it could get him into trouble.

If he raised taxes, he'd anger his fellow Republicans. Break a promise to increase education funding and he'd alienate the top Democratic interest group, the California Teachers Assn. Option 3: Cut health and human services, the next biggest category in the budget. He didn't like the idea, but some of his advisors did, and given that there were no good choices, it appeared to be the political path of least resistance.

But Schwarzenegger had more to think about than budget policy and his own political standing. As a 21st century politician, he had to factor in his wife. Though Maria Shriver identifies herself as a journalist, she, like most political spouses, is, in effect, a politician with her own persona and constituency--a separate political brand. And the governor was savvy enough to know that damage to her brand could undermine them both.

We've seen more than a few examples lately of how that can happen. The Clintons, the Obamas, the Bushes, the Spitzers: They've all been navigating --some better than others--the tricky new reality in which political couples are expected to make their positions separate but not combative, their public identities close but not too close.

The need for this distinct branding evolved for reasons directly related to the massive expansion of one American institution--celebrity culture--and the shrinking of another: marriage. Today's political spouses are turned into celebrities on a scale that would have overwhelmed Bess Truman or Mamie Eisenhower. And they exist in a new social paradigm. Because married couples represent a minority in the U.S.--and many who are married don't define themselves by their unions--we expect political spouses to be more than mere extensions of the politician.

Thus, the modern political spouse: a wife or husband with a separate persona that's larger and broadcast farther than ever before.

Shriver is one of the highest forms of this species. Strongly identified with her Kennedy background--her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is a sister of the late President Kennedy--she is associated with a series of causes (tax credits for the poor, Head Start, women's issues) at variance with the image of her husband. But it is precisely those differences that make her persona so politically valuable to the governor, who has raised bipartisan marriage to a public art form. His speeches use his wife as a character and a foil, a way to wink at the audience and achieve the political bliss that comes from appearing to be many different things to many different people. To Republicans, he talks about how intense exposure to the views of his wife and her family hasn't swayed him from his Republicanism, and he is fond of rolling out an old joke about how there have been no political disagreements at home since he started sleeping in the garage. When he tells the joke for Democrats, however, he never leaves the bedroom. "I sleep with a Democrat every night," he quips. Few details are offered, but Democrats are left with the idea: She's getting to him.

So when he faced his budget decision in late 2004, targeting health and human services programs wasn't an easy call. Shriver had been working on her allies in the administration to stop such cuts. And Schwarzenegger was wary about undercutting her causes and her standing with Democrats. (After all, shouldn't her pillow talk be able to stop this?)

The popularity of his wife's distinct brand was crucial to his being governor. On election night in 2003, he had turned to her onstage and said, "I know how many votes I got today because of you." Shriver wasn't the only factor, but ultimately, Schwarzenegger didn't cut health spending. Instead, he blew up his relationship with the teachers union and declined to provide all of a promised increase in education funding. He would suffer politically for the decision. But crucially, it was his deal, not hers, that he broke.

This is a complicated calculus. It's hard enough to make the right political decision or choose the correct policy when you're worried about your reputation. But when you have to make choices and worry about a spouse's public reputation as well, your options narrow. No matter how right a decision seems, if it undermines the spouse's brand, it can land both sides in trouble.

Take the recent "brand clash" that arose in the case of New York's former prosecutor-governor, Eliot Spitzer, and the tableau he created at a news conference called to apologize for his "private failings" after reports that he'd patronized expensive prostitutes.

Spitzer's wife, Silda, was next to her husband at a podium while he spoke, following the stand-by-your-man precedent of political couples with infidelity trouble that dates back to Gary and Lee Hart. The traditional idea is that the wife should be up there with him, to show the public that the family is still together and that someone can still stand the jerk.

But this time, the performance was panned. The public just didn't see the couple as one entity. The governor's alleged patronage of prostitutes didn't have anything to do with her, so why should she have to suffer the humiliation and be sullied by his indiscretion? "Let him twist in the wind alone," said Patt Morrison in the Huffington Post. In this new world, Silda Spitzer's appearance hurt her husband instead of helping it.

Political advisors are still wrapping their minds around the business of managing two highly related, but ultimately independent, brands. Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento political consultant who has worked for Schwarzenegger and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, says consultants have to be aware of so many different interests in thinking about candidates and their spouses that "it makes it trickier for us to advise them. The rule is that it's all more relative."

When both spouses have held political office, keeping their brands separate is crucial but not always easy. Hillary Rodham Clinton benefits from her husband's record, according to polling. But the same polling shows that the public is ambivalent at best about the idea of having Bill Clinton back in the White House. Hillary Clinton, by running on her husband's record, put herself in the dangerous position of being hurt not only by her own mistakes but by her husband's. A Democratic consultant who has worked with the Clintons and insisted on not being quoted by name says: "It was a mistake for her to run on an experience message, in part because it connects her to him too closely, to all his comments and misstatements, the good and the bad."

Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is not aligned in this year's race, adds, "If it had not been the experience message, which is so dependent on her experience being the spouse of the president, it would have been easier for her to separate herself." Carrick notes that given all the permutations, managing a relationship as complicated as the Clintons' is unusually difficult: "Your brain ends up getting fried thinking about it."

The calculus is easier for Michelle Obama, a lawyer and hospital executive. She has committed her share of gaffes on the campaign trail, but polling shows no damage to her husband so far. An Obama aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, notes that Michelle Obama's stump speech is purposefully focused on her own story, a rise from the south side of Chicago--where her father worked a blue-collar job at a water-filtration facility--to the Ivy League. When she talks about her husband, she often draws a contrast between her grounded beginning and his sprawling, less traditional family. In speeches, she is adamant that her career and her husband's have been separate.

"No one presumes that Michelle Obama is a professional politician," Carrick says. "To the extent that she says some things that she probably regrets, they don't leave an indelible mark."

Even among people whose constituencies revere marriage and family values, co-candidacies don't work. Janet Huckabee, wife of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, told me this year that she considered her unsuccessful run for Arkansas secretary of state in 2002 to be a mistake. Her husband was running for reelection on the same ballot, and the public, in her view, saw the relationship as too close. "I don't think of ever doing it again," she said. "It was a very difficult time . . . and it was a little bit hard for people to understand." She was far more popular when she engaged in high-risk outdoor adventures: bungee jumping, hunting rattlesnakes. Many of these activities were political--she was advocating for the outdoors and hunting--but they were distinct from her husband, who didn't enjoy them.

Brand separation works. Laura Bush may be the most successful practi-tioner, keeping herself popular even as she is married to one of the least popular presidents in modern times. She has avoided association with her husband's policies on war and social issues, and as a result, she is a valuable asset for his administration. In her husband's second term, she has stepped up her foreign travel, visiting the Middle East and Africa. The New York Times, in noting this, headlined a story, "First Lady Raising Her Profile Without Changing Her Image." That's exactly the idea.

Schwarzenegger's decision to withhold promised education funding cost him: His approval rating dropped 30 points and his ballot initiatives in a 2005 special election failed. But by avoiding cuts to health programs, he also preserved his wife's popularity. Shriver carefully kept her distance; she never backed the education decision publicly. And she never endorsed his failed ballot initiatives.

So when Schwarzenegger needed to rebound from the special-election defeat and win reelection in 2006, he still had a key asset he could employ: Shriver's separate and unsullied brand. Schwarzenegger hired new government and political aides--and talked up his wife's role in the reshuffling. She was given some of the credit for bringing in the new chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, and for his decision to sign Democratic bills he had previously vetoed. Shriver's persona helped make plausible the story Schwarzenegger was selling: his own transformation.

In truth, Schwarzenegger and Shriver hired this new "bipartisan team" in the same way they hired the previous "partisan" group: together. And it was the governor, not his wife, who made the policy changes after the defeat. Those who know the couple describe Schwarzenegger and Shriver as very similar characters: talkative and intelligent schemers with a shared devotion to family, mass communications and middle-of-the-road political views.

But the public sees them as separate brands. Schwarzenegger understood that. Call it the new chivalry: By protecting her, he saved himself.

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