The Race for First Lady

SARA ENGRAM

August 30, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM | SARA ENGRAM,Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. PTC

In this strange election year, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the race for First Lady almost got as rough as the race for the presidency.

Republicans are backing away from their ''family values'' flag waving and from their attacks on Hillary Clinton, the high-powered wife of the Democratic candidate. What's surprising is that they tried this strategy in the first place.

During their convention, the Astrodome was full of talk that a Democratic victory would bring a ''co-presidency,'' with the First Lady wielding a radical-feminist wand over a Clinton administration. President and Mrs. Bush each cited references by the Clintons early in the primary campaigns to a ''two-for-one'' team as justification for their criticism.

Governor Clinton responded by saying President Bush was acting as if he were running for First Lady and -- more seriously -- that the attacks on his wife were in effect attacks on independent, strong-minded women who work for a living.

Now that the Bush campaign's convention bounce has turned to a thud, political pundits are rendering harsh judgment on an Astrodome show centered on ''family values'' and vitriolic attacks on both Clintons. In this case, the conventional wisdom is simply following common sense: Attacking candidates' wives is risky business, and attacking Hillary Clinton comes perilously close to attacking not only independent, strong-minded, professional women, but also the millions of other women whose daily lives are balancing acts between the family and the workplace.

Some women work because they want to, but most working women say they do it because they have to. In one survey, 46 percent of working women cited finances as the major reason they hold a job, while another 20 percent said they work in part for personal satisfaction and in part for economic reasons.

In other words, two-thirds of working women say they can't afford to make the same choice as Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Quayle. As for those working women who could afford that choice, attacks on Hillary Clinton could easily be perceived as attacks on their right to fulfill their own potential by succeeding in a career. How un-Republican can you get?

It makes you wonder what the Bush strategists were inhaling when they thought it would be good politics to paint Barbara Bush and Marilyn Quayle as better mothers and truer Americans because they stayed home with the kids.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart assesses the strategy this way: The most popular Republican among voters is Mrs. Bush. The least popular member of the ticket is Vice President Quayle. On the Democratic side, Sen. Albert Gore is the voters' favorite; the least popular is Mrs. Clinton. By bringing in the wives, Republicans could paint the choice not as Bush and Quayle versus Clinton and Gore, but rather as George and Barbara versus Bill and Hillary. That comparison neatly jettisons not only their biggest liability but also the Democrats' biggest asset.

Hence, all the feel-good talk about families and values -- and the wild exaggerations of a few words in Mrs. Clinton's legal writings about children.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, feel-good doesn't work when people don't feel good.

''Family values'' might be a great topic for a debating society, but not for families trying to put food on the table or scrape up tuition for college. They're asking, ''Where's the beef?''

The same goes for the party's effort to characterize a few words in an academic paper (one so scholarly that most readers' eyes will glaze over) into support for the notion that children should be able to sue their parents over trivialities like household chores.

Nobody understands what she's up against better than Hillary Clinton herself. As she pointed out recently, the transition of women into the work place ''has been played out at every level in the public and private sector except the presidency.''

Bush campaign strategists may have thought that portraying Mrs. Clinton as out of the mainstream is good politics.

They might well discover that it only portrays them as out of step with the aspirations and needs of millions of American women -- and the families who depend on their paychecks.

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