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Are politicians’ family members ‘off limits’?

When Elizabeth Lauten, a Republican staffer, criticized the appearance and behavior of Malia and Sasha Obama during the annual Thanksgiving turkey-pardoning hosted by their father, President Barack Obama, she opened up the perennial debate about whether the family members of politicians should be off limits to criticism. 

While a lot of this debate is legitimate, it leaves out how often politicians expect their families to be political objects. 

{mosads}Malia and Sasha stood by quietly during a brief, light-hearted ceremony that (as the president pointed out) mostly serves as an opportunity for the president to wish the nation a happy Thanksgiving. They hardly did anything to warrant Lauten’s harsh criticism, though it might be fair to wonder whether a double-standard is at play, given the amount of criticism that the previous pair of first siblings — Barbara and Jenna Bush — received. 

But what should be the rule when it comes to family members of politicians? What standard should be even-handedly applied to them all, Republican, Democrat, or otherwise? 

Basically, families of politicians should be off-limits to criticism until such time as they do something political. The problem, though, is getting politicians to live up to that standard, because politicians routinely put their families up for political consideration. 

Think of it: when politicians campaign for office, they give us a “holistic” presentation of their lives. They don’t just recount their political successes — passing this bill, thwarting that legislation — they list their private sector accomplishments as well, along with their domestic life. 

In particular, they bring their spouse and their children up to the podium alongside them, and present themselves as being part of a happy, well-functioning family. Everybody is well-dressed, nobody is in an orange jumpsuit, and if there are any “unseemly” family members to be found, they’re edited out of the campaign literature. 

The implicit argument is: “happy family, good candidate.” 

And that argument is fine, to an extent. I can understand that some voters might prefer a candidate who has a large chunk of their life in good order, and not just their political opinions. But if this is the view you’re going to adopt, then you have to stick with it. 

Unfortunately, the “holistic” approach quickly gets dumped the moment it becomes apparent that a large chunk of a politician’s life is in less than good order. The second one of the kids is arrested for DUI or possession of a controlled substance, or the spouse (or the politician themselves) is found in an act of sexual improvisation outside wedlock, then the “holistic” approach is abandoned in favor of the “compartmental” one: a politician’s personal life — be it sexual or familial — is separate from and has no bearing on their political positions or their public conduct, and is therefore to be ignored. 

And, again, I have some sympathy for this “compartmentalizing” viewpoint. But there’s a real problem with the opportunistic shifting from one standard to the other in midstream. 

The classic example of this flip-flop is President Bill Clinton, who — like most politicians — put his family prominently on display when running for the White House in 1992, to the point of making his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a chief adviser. Bill’s candidacy promised “two for the price of one,” and, once in office, he made Hillary the head of a task force on health care reform. 

Once Bill Clinton was found to be having an affair with a White House intern (and deceiving a grand jury about said affair), however, the holistic politician transformed into compartmentalizing mode, and Clinton’s critics were blamed for trying to use Clinton’s personal troubles to complicate his political career. The rest is history. 

It’s easy to insist that family members should be off limits until they engage in political activity — say, when they stump for political causes or candidates. But. when a politician brings their family up on stage during a campaign, we have to ask, why are they there? What point is there to them being on display if it’s not a political one? 

I’m still waiting for the politician who campaigns alone, and when asked why their family isn’t there says something like, “a political campaign is basically a job interview, and I don’t bring my family to job interviews. Like many Americans, I’ll do my job as best I can, whatever might be going on back at home.” That’s what it would mean to take the “compartmental” approach before it becomes a matter of desperate political convenience. 

As with so many issues in politics, the problem isn’t so much with the position being taken; the problem is with politicians who switch from one reasonable position to a diametrically opposed reasonable position the second it suits their own political viability.

Denvil has written for Facts on File, PolicyMic, and

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton

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