Liberal Candidates’ Embrace of Traditional Family Values: Hypocritical, yet Necessary

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

After months of teasing the question, Beto O’Rourke finally announced his 2020 run for president in a Facebook video: “Amy and I are happy to share with you that I am running to serve you as the next president of the United States of America.” He outlined his campaign on his living room couch accompanied by his wife Amy, who is seen tightly clutching his left arm and smiling sympathetically. She remained silent while he used his right arm to make exaggerated hand movements. While I was excited to hear O’Rourke’s announcement, I could not help but laugh at the awkward juxtaposition of his progressive platform partnered with a tacit display of traditional gender roles. Why would he bring his wife to the forefront of his campaign if she would remain silent throughout the video?

Amy O’Rourke will not be the first nor the last wife of a presidential candidate to serve as a political ploy to garner support during a campaign. In 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first wife of a presidential candidate to give a convention speech in support of her husband. By speaking about the endearing, lesser-known qualities of Franklin Roosevelt, she redefined the role of the political spouse to be the person who can humanize and reveal the more personable side of the candidate: their trustworthiness, stability, and authenticity. She set a precedent for future campaigning spouses to serve as a political vessel through which their husbands could showcase their domestic principles.

Eleanor also revealed the tremendous power a political wife has in targeting their demographic through her work with campaign biographers to rally women voters. She became so integral to her husband’s campaign that when Franklin Roosevelt considered leaving her for his mistress Lucy Mercer, his campaign manager, Louis Howe, convinced him not to because the divorce would destroy his chance of winning over women voters. Howe understood that voters were electing not just a Commander-in-Chief, but a face for the country, and that the people chosen to live in the White House would need to represent their ideal American family. Howe instructed Roosevelt to employ an effective political strategy to appeal to the family values of both women and social conservatives. He encouraged Eleanor to match these traditional expectations by coupling her active political involvement with a reaffirmation of her role as a mother and faithful wife.

Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy, arguably the most outspoken spouse since Eleanor Roosevelt, appealed to these two demographics as well. She appeared in TV commercials, gave interviews, and wrote a column called “Campaign Wife,” where she gave her personal perspective on campaign issues. Despite her promotion of gender equality, she stated: “I'll always do anything my husband asks me to do if he wants me to do that. Of course, I'd be delighted. I am an old-fashioned wife.”

Similarly, Jimmy Carter carefully spoke of his marriage with Rosalynn Carter so as not to alienate the religious right. He presented his wife as his equal while simultaneously asserting her role as “a quiet, soft, female,” and justified gender equality with pious arguments that women have been “deprived of the right to serve Jesus Christ in positions of leadership as they did during his earthly ministry and in the early Christian churches.” Rosalynn served his approach by championing the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s political involvement, but assured moderate conservatives that she firmly stood against legal abortion. Carter’s strategy of using his domestic beliefs as a tool to pander to theological sentiments while still adhering to a progressive platform won him the presidency with around 63% of white Protestant votes and 45% of women’s votes.  

Throughout history, the strides that liberal presidential candidates and their wives have made towards gender equality have not been diminished by the traditional values they embrace; rather, by carefully embracing those values, their progressive platform has become more permissible in the eyes of the public. Being a candidate who acts in a conventional manner and a candidate who believes in gender equality are not mutually exclusive. Further, the campaign wife is simply adapting to the moral principles of voters in order to promote the election of their spouse. As the electorate desires a more personal connection with their Commander-in-Chief, their families are propelled into the limelight, often against their wills. The media scrutinizes and sensationalizes these families’ financial background, education, and appearance because these qualities interest voters. The role spouses play in campaigns are simply a reflection of constituent’s demands.

As the electorate has adopted more progressive values, politicians seemingly have adopted more equal relationship dynamics as well. Voters now encourage unapologetic, outspoken wives, giving emergence to political spouses like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton whose husbands promote their individual ambitions, often encouraging them take on political positions themselves. In fact, many voters loved the Obamas and Clintons not because they fulfilled traditional roles but because both spouses were highly educated and modeled equal partnerships. Journalist Connie Schultz put it best when she said, “I voted for Bill Clinton...because he would choose to have such a strong, intelligent, well-spoken, obviously successful woman around him, that he didn't show any resentment towards.” Little surprise, then, that Schultz is herself the wife of prominent Ohio senator, Sherrod Brown.

Contrary to Michelle and Hillary, who spoke on the campaign trail about their own careers and aspirations, Amy O’Rourke focuses on her role as a mother. She joins her husband in almost every press release, but only to share wholesome memories of motherhood like the time Beto gave her a bowl of their child’s poop. Together, the O’Rourkes have assumed conservative familial roles: Amy is the supportive wife who gave up graduate school at Beto’s behest and now raises their kids, “sometimes with [his] help.” Introducing his campaign with “Amy and I,” echoing Newt Gingrich who often says “Callista and I,” Beto stresses the importance of his wife to his ambitions, but does not necessarily promote her individual value.

If voter expectations have changed to encourage more equal partnerships, how can this contradiction be accounted for? While the electorate as a whole is generally more accepting towards unconventional families, the importance of family values for women and moderate conservatives has remained stagnant. A poll that USA Today and Gallup conducted in 2007 revealed that family values resonate more with conservatives and women than any other demographic: 79% women and 86% of Republicans reported that candidate’s positions on family values were either “extremely or very important” in determining their vote. Their rationale is that a politician's family structure may be indicative of the policies they would promote. The votes of women and moderate conservatives are crucial to winning an election, so co-opting the values of both demographics remains an effective strategy. Originally campaigning for a Senate seat in Texas, a historically red state, O’Rourke has greatly benefited from appealing to societal expectations on both sides of the aisle.

This political tactic may seem hypocritical, but it is valid. Even for a liberal candidate who believes in a gender equality, tapping into voters’ implicit predilection towards a nuclear family produces positive results. Liberal candidates like Beto O’Rourke must embrace conservative principles to some degree in order to be elected. Defeating President Trump will be impossible without forming a powerful coalition between women and left-of-center voters who otherwise form a polarized electorate. The importance of principle versus effective political tactics can be debated, but, at the end of the day, Democrats need to embrace some political pragmatism if they want to win in 2020.

Rachel Barkin