Hillary's "Husband Problem"

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

Though no longer First Lady, Hillary Clinton is still a wife and there's the rub. As have many other female politicians before her, Senator Clinton has discovered that a husband can be a political liability. The events of the last few weeks recall what one cynic told me months ago: "If Bill Clinton got run over by a bus, Hillary would have one less thing to worry about."

The former president's outsized role in his wife's campaign has always been a two-edged sword. Though clearly unique among political consorts in his rock star magnetism and unrivaled fundraising skills, Bill Clinton has also been uniquely burdensome in that he comes with the record of his eight-year administration, good and bad, and the baggage of his all-too-well-known private behavior.

That a candidate's spouse has a significant effect on voters' decisions seems incontrovertible. A CBS News poll conducted in June 2007 found that six in 10 voters consider a presidential candidate's spouse "very" or "somewhat important." The poll did not differentiate between President Clinton and the female spouses, a distinction that may have yielded more layered results. Nonetheless, the numbers were telling. A spouse was considered important by 65 percent of the women and 50 percent of men. Republicans (71 percent) were more likely than Democrats (54 percent) or Independents (49 percent) to say they would factor the presidential spouse into their decision. Among those 45 years and older, nearly seven of ten respondents said the candidate's spouse would affect their decision.

Unfortunately, history suggests that rather than enhance her image the way a wife enhances a male candidate, a husband can complicate a woman's leadership aspirations. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jeanine Pirro, Dianne Feinstein, Geraldine Ferraro, Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Dole are among those who have had to explain, defend, or distance themselves from their husbands' statements, activities, behavior, or improprieties.

Bill Clinton's recent "bigfoot" intercession on Hillary's behalf prompted former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder to say, "His actions, while occasionally intemperate and a little over the top, are much more noble than Bob Dole's were when his wife, Elizabeth was running for president." Dole starred in Viagra ads, gave money to his wife's opponent, John McCain, and was absent from the campaign trail.

The husband problem is a no-win for Hillary. If Bill absented himself, it would reflect badly on their marriage. Yet when he stumps for her, she runs the risk of his messing up or going too far. She needs him to be a beneficent presence in her campaign, supportive but not overbearing, embarrassing, or spot-light stealing. She needs him to appear adoring but not wimpish, agreeable but not hen-pecked. As a wife, she must simultaneously convey that she respects him but is not ruled by him. It's a tough balancing act.

Female heads of state offer scant guidance on how to manage it. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's husband, Denis, gave her no grief because he was content to remain in the background. He refused interviews, made brief, bland speeches when asked, and referred to her as "The Boss." Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister, described herself as married, though everyone knew she and her husband Morris were estranged. Germany's present Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to make excuses for her publicity-shy husband who skipped his wife's inauguration and has been described in the media as a detriment to her career -- "dour," a "killjoy," and an "inept socializer."

Due to the husband problem, the ideal status for a woman candidate seems to be widow. The widow enters the fray with the sympathy of her constituency, a sense of entitlement, the assumption of her husband's legacy, and the credential of having been a wife without the complication of having to accommodate the demands of a living man.

American women who've been appointed or elected to public office as a result of their husbands' deaths include Wyoming's Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first woman governor; Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas, the first female senator (appointed and then elected twice more in her own right); two noteworthy women from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith and Olympia Snowe; Muriel Humphrey of Minnesota, widow of Hubert; Maureen Brown Neuberger of Oregon, widow of Richard; Huey P. Long's widow, rose McConnell Long of Louisiana; California Congresswoman Mary Bono, widow of Sonny Bono who died in a skiing accident; and New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who ran for office after a madman killed her husband.

Internationally, Bangladesh, Guyana, Sri Landa, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Panama have had female presidents or prime ministers who assumed power after their husbands died or were assassinated in office.

The point seems to be, if you want an uncomplicated run to power, remain husbandless. To wit: Kim Campbell, briefly Prime Minister of Canada in 1993, was divorced; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, currently President of Liberia, is divorced; Michelle Bachelet, the President of Chile, is legally separated. Prime Ministers Maria de Lurdes Pintasilgo of Portugal, Eugenia Charles of Dominica, and Hanna Suchocka of Polands were unmarried

Men should not have to die for women to assume power. Women should not have to be single to run for office. And, as her historic candidacy goes forward, Hillary Clinton should not be penalized for her husband's sometimes overzealous advocacy of his wife.