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First attack dog?

Memo to candidates: Don't bring your spouse to the office. And keep it presidential, please!

January 26, 2008

Harrrumph! The husband of the first female front-runner for president appears on the campaign trail red-faced and testy, slings mud at his wife's rival and berates a reporter for asking a legitimate question. This looks bad. When he happens to be a former president himself, and his wife's rival is the first black presidential candidate with a chance of winning, it looks even worse. But two principles can guide us through this political swamp.

First, presidents past, current and future are required to comport themselves with decorum -- the more so when others don't. Former President Clinton demeans his considerable legacy by serving as his wife's attack dog in chief. To be fair, his attacks on Barack Obama have nothing to do with race and everything to do with the nasty political reality that both Clintons have learned the hard way: Never let an attack go unanswered, because some mud always sticks. But Obama kept his cool while the former commander in chief had a meltdown. Round One to Obama.

Second, don't bring your spouse to the office to fight your battles for you. A feminist icon such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, no matter how battered on the campaign trial, should not bring out her man to defend her. Candidates routinely tap famous surrogates -- including generals, celebrities, experts and kamikaze politicians -- to attack their opponents, defend their honor and "amplify" their messages to the media. But deploying one's spouse for negative campaigning duty should be verboten, just as sending a spouse in to negotiate with one's boss is a workplace don't. Hillary has convinced us that she's tough enough to be president, so why does she need Bill to fight dirty for her? True, she stood by him when he was a presidential candidate whose adultery had become public -- and she was roundly criticized for doing so. In our marital score book, that means he owes her. But she should display the good judgment not to try to collect on that private debt in public.

Of course, the no-spouses-at-the-office rule does not merely apply to first gentlemen. It also means that Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards, both of whom have gotten their licks in lately, must stick to the high road. Would all the spouses kindly do the same?

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