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What's the Secret to a Political Marriage That Works?

(It's All About the Brand)

May 04, 2008|Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews is a former staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau and the author of "The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy." Contact him at
(Sean McCabe / Los Angeles…)

One afternoon early in his second year as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger flew home from Sacramento to Los Angeles with a vexing political problem. He needed to cut $2 billion from the budget he was putting together, and any of his best options for doing it could get him into trouble.

If he raised taxes, he'd anger his fellow Republicans. Break a promise to increase education funding and he'd alienate the top Democratic interest group, the California Teachers Assn. Option 3: Cut health and human services, the next biggest category in the budget. He didn't like the idea, but some of his advisors did, and given that there were no good choices, it appeared to be the political path of least resistance.

But Schwarzenegger had more to think about than budget policy and his own political standing. As a 21st century politician, he had to factor in his wife. Though Maria Shriver identifies herself as a journalist, she, like most political spouses, is, in effect, a politician with her own persona and constituency--a separate political brand. And the governor was savvy enough to know that damage to her brand could undermine them both.

We've seen more than a few examples lately of how that can happen. The Clintons, the Obamas, the Bushes, the Spitzers: They've all been navigating --some better than others--the tricky new reality in which political couples are expected to make their positions separate but not combative, their public identities close but not too close.

The need for this distinct branding evolved for reasons directly related to the massive expansion of one American institution--celebrity culture--and the shrinking of another: marriage. Today's political spouses are turned into celebrities on a scale that would have overwhelmed Bess Truman or Mamie Eisenhower. And they exist in a new social paradigm. Because married couples represent a minority in the U.S.--and many who are married don't define themselves by their unions--we expect political spouses to be more than mere extensions of the politician.

Thus, the modern political spouse: a wife or husband with a separate persona that's larger and broadcast farther than ever before.

Shriver is one of the highest forms of this species. Strongly identified with her Kennedy background--her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is a sister of the late President Kennedy--she is associated with a series of causes (tax credits for the poor, Head Start, women's issues) at variance with the image of her husband. But it is precisely those differences that make her persona so politically valuable to the governor, who has raised bipartisan marriage to a public art form. His speeches use his wife as a character and a foil, a way to wink at the audience and achieve the political bliss that comes from appearing to be many different things to many different people. To Republicans, he talks about how intense exposure to the views of his wife and her family hasn't swayed him from his Republicanism, and he is fond of rolling out an old joke about how there have been no political disagreements at home since he started sleeping in the garage. When he tells the joke for Democrats, however, he never leaves the bedroom. "I sleep with a Democrat every night," he quips. Few details are offered, but Democrats are left with the idea: She's getting to him.

So when he faced his budget decision in late 2004, targeting health and human services programs wasn't an easy call. Shriver had been working on her allies in the administration to stop such cuts. And Schwarzenegger was wary about undercutting her causes and her standing with Democrats. (After all, shouldn't her pillow talk be able to stop this?)

The popularity of his wife's distinct brand was crucial to his being governor. On election night in 2003, he had turned to her onstage and said, "I know how many votes I got today because of you." Shriver wasn't the only factor, but ultimately, Schwarzenegger didn't cut health spending. Instead, he blew up his relationship with the teachers union and declined to provide all of a promised increase in education funding. He would suffer politically for the decision. But crucially, it was his deal, not hers, that he broke.

This is a complicated calculus. It's hard enough to make the right political decision or choose the correct policy when you're worried about your reputation. But when you have to make choices and worry about a spouse's public reputation as well, your options narrow. No matter how right a decision seems, if it undermines the spouse's brand, it can land both sides in trouble.

Take the recent "brand clash" that arose in the case of New York's former prosecutor-governor, Eliot Spitzer, and the tableau he created at a news conference called to apologize for his "private failings" after reports that he'd patronized expensive prostitutes.

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