THE BLOG
06/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Marriage the New Senatorship?

Political scientists will have a field day this September explaining how a candidate who won primary contests in California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas failed to secure her party's nomination. The lessons learned and questions resulting from this Democratic primary contest are some of profound ones posed in decades. One question that will likely be addressed by those with cogent gender-analytical skills is whether marriage has become the new senatorship.

Given the way that George Bush and his operatives instigated a stormy marriage debate one can be forgiven for thinking that marriage is the fourth chamber of US politics resting alongside the executive, judicial and legislative. As states across this nation continue making decisions on whether to allow gay marriage, marriage as a whole has risen in prominence as a hotbed political issue, one that even capable of competing with the Iraq War for political attention paid to in 2004's election cycle.

Gay marriage has not been a major issue during this year's campaign, which in turn has led to a more traditional angle to discussing marriage during presidential campaigns: who a candidate is married to. Thus Barack Obama opponents have sought to portray Michelle Obama as a firebrand whose politics run counter to his racial-unity platform, and similarly John McCain's opponents counter that he's out of touch because his wife, Cindy, is an heiress. While few will openly admit to this, implied in all discussions of Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama is an implicit critique of the decisions these men made in choosing their spouses, and how does this corroborate how these men make decisions in general. Senators are especially sensitive to assessments of their decision making, which is one reason why senators, especially those with long legislative records, have trouble becoming president. It has been close to fifty years (48 to be exact) since a sitting US senator was elected President. A senator's legislative record is a public register that stands as clear of an indicator of their moral and ethical spine a person can ever have. It is a forgone conclusion in American politics that the longer a candidate has been a senator, the shorter their odds are of becoming president.

Until recently, there had not been a similar principle for marriages. George and Barbara Bush are living examples that a candidate can have a long-lasting marriage and a successful presidential bid. Indeed, it worked to the benefit of candidates to spin stories about marrying their high school or college sweethearts. Marriage was then the antithesis of the senate, the more years, the better -- then came Bill and Hillary Clinton.

As Hillary Clinton prepares to end her presidential campaign, there will not be any shortage of articles ruminating on what went wrong with her campaign. A number of these articles are likely to address some variation of either her inability to keep Bill in check, or Bills inability to work his magic. Given his status as a former president it makes sense that his gaffes would garner more attention and be seen as potentially more damaging than those made by the other spouses. There was clearly an imbalance over attention paid to the Clintons' refusal to release their taxes and Cindy McCain's refuse to release hers. Likewise, Michelle Obama's comment that this is the first time in her adult life that she was proud of her country was more perniciously misinterpreted than anything uttered by either Bill Clinton. Therefore one can make a case that Bill broke even in terms of his treatment by the press.

Because of their shared celebrity, it is at times easy to overlook the fact that the Clintons are a married couple, and that their's is the longest lasting marriage of the three finalists in this year's campaign season. 95% of what Americans know about Hillary Clinton in her adult life occurred within the context of her marriage to Bill Clinton. Her senate career may be second only to Obama's in terms of brevity, but her marriage to Bill considerably outpaces both Obama's and McCain's tenures with their spouses.

Hillary Clinton is no Jeanine Pirro, whose political career has been repeatedly derailed by her husband's indiscretions. Nor is she a Kathleen Sebelius, the Kansas governor touted as a potential vice-presidential candidate -- few outside her inner circle would be able to point out her husband. Sebelius' case reasserts that credible invisibility is a prerequisite for a political spouse. If not, a marriage can quickly devolve into the senate chamber and a couple's victories and defeats are laid bare for the world to see. To that end, in its latest greatest sleight of hand history dealt stymied the ambitious of another campaign season's longest tenured senator.