This is part of a continuing dialogue between Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson about the presidential campaign.
Margaret: Image trouble? There’s no better place to go for burnishing than Jay Leno’s sofa, an irony-free zone where he applauds your 43-year marriage.
Ann Romney had a smooth go of it on Tuesday night, contrary to some recent appearances when her beautiful façade showed some cracks. Amid some bad poll numbers and her husband’s fumbles last week, she struck back at his critics in an interview on Radio Iowa. "Stop it," she said. "This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring."
With Jay she was back in form. Like all spouses, she makes for a good surrogate: inside knowledge of the candidate as a person, with all his charming virtues, but no special expertise about the candidate as a candidate, with his conflicting positions on health care and money stashed in the Caymans. So Romney described how her heart went a-thump when she met the young Mitt, joked about his dance moves (Leno showed an amusing photo-shopped clip of Mitt getting down on the convention stage), rhapsodized about how good he would be for the country and reiterated how much he loves the 100 percent. She showed a flash of humor when Leno asked what she would work on as first lady: multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, "and any new disease” she might contract between now and the inauguration.
But as in her convention speech, Romney missed an opportunity to show how her husband is such a wonderful human being, instead deciding to tell us that he is.Her one attempt bordered on unbelievable: Mitt is so frugal, she says, he turns off the hot water heater when they go away. Really, who does that? And in how many of your houses does he do that in?
They may not have to bear the brunt of overt nastiness from the opposition party, for the most part. But they do have to live up to a dozen contradictory demands. They’re supposed to show their complete devotion to their candidate husbands -- but deprecate them, too, so as not to come across as Stepford Wives. They’re supposed to be perfect, but not so perfect that people can’t relate to them. They should say things that help their husbands through whatever political circumstances they find themselves in, without sounding like they’re reciting talking points.
So we should cut Ann Romney, and Mrs. Obama, a lot of slack. I thought Mrs. Romney was just fine on Leno last night. Nobody could doubt how much she believes in her husband. Nobody could doubt, either, that she does not relish campaigning: She said she told Mitt, “I’m never doing this again,” after the 2008 primary race. And she found safe ways to poke fun at her husband. “He’s gotten to be a better dancer,” she said; very diplomatic, responded Leno.
I thought she was more successful than you did, Margaret, at making the case for her husband as a person. The story she mentioned, about Mitt’s spending time at a dying boy’s bedside, is one of many acts of really extraordinary compassion he has performed, almost entirely out of the public eye.
She was weakest when she returned to the talking points. Her husband wants to help “the 100 percent” was her non-response to Leno’s question about her husband’s notorious 47 percent remark -- but I guess there wasn’t much she could say that would have been better. Her spiel about how women are faring in the Obama economy also sounded studied. At the Republican convention, you’ll recall, she declared “I love you women.” This seems to be one of her main roles for the Romney campaign: She is ambassador to the mysterious land of American women.
The campaign seems to think that one of the key messages for swing voters is that Mitt cares about and respects women -- and it does so by, for example, explaining that unemployment is bad for women, too. I think the reassurance voters need is that he has better ideas, and more concern, about how to help the middle class than the Republicans of the Bush era did. That’s not a case that Mrs. Romney could be expected to make, of course. It’s her husband’s job.
She did her own job well last night. I agree that her line about increasing awareness of MS, breast cancer, and any new illness she suffers was funny. And if she is first lady, it would mean an end to the broccoli wars Mrs. Obama has started. Another reason to vote Republican!
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)