Last night, First Lady Michelle Obama blew everyone's hair back at the Democratic National Convention with a speech that pundits called "history-changing," and "dominating." The First Lady didn't come out swinging, she didn't go too deeply into policy, she spoke directly to the American people and vouched for her husband's ability to be a decent human being. It was the highlight of the evening, like Ann Romney's lovefest speech a week ago was arguably the highlight of the entire RNC (unless you count the crazy guy yelling at the chair). As Mrs. Obama's speech wrapped up with similarly thundering, seemingly endless applause, it became even more clear that Americans like the candidates' wives significantly more than they like the candidates themselves. Is this a problem?
Though Mrs. Romney's was a tough act to follow, Mrs. O stepped up to the plate last night and delivered what breathless spectators called one of the greatest speeches in the history of political conventions. Peppered with nod-along applause lines like "Success isn't about how much money you make, it's about the difference you make in people's lives" and "when you walk through that door of opportunity you don't slam it shut behind you" as well as heartfelt insistance that her husband's struggles growing up middle class inform his policymaking and, for good measure, an emotional plea for voters to work for a better future for their children, she riveted her audience for 25 minutes. That's longer than most people can go without getting up to check the refrigerator for snacks. She didn't mention Mitt Romney once. She didn't go negative, but she didn't go too fluffy. She made it look easy.
During her speech, Mrs. Obama took all the requisite unassailable positions: Thank you, troops. Moms work hard. Opportunity is good. America rocks. I believe the children are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. But for what her speech, and the speech of her Republican counterpart lacked in specifics, they made up for in emotional appeal to voters. And voters love that shit.
As the political conventions are essentially a set of character witnesses designed to fluff the public for the party's Presidential nominee, the nominees' spouses' speeches are a wife-off. Which candidate was able to convince the better lady that he was worth hanging around?
There's no such thing as a First Lady Debate and no major party Presidential candidate has ever listed his spouse as his running mate, but after last night, while America may be significantly more meh about 2012 than they were about 2008, they're fired up about the choice between First Ladies — because we actually like the potential First Ladies. That awkward fact held true even in April, when Ann Romney was first taking a larger role in her husband's robo-march to the White House, and it continued to hold true after Mrs. Romney's speech last week, when a Gallup poll showed that only 24% of Americans had an unfavorable impression of the former First Lady of Massachusetts and current dancing horseowner, compared with 46% of Americans who find her husband distasteful. Mrs. Obama's favorability compared to her husband is dramatic as well — she's enjoyed approval ratings above 60%, according to Gallup.
If people like the candidates' wives so much more than they like the candidates themselves, you might ask, then why don't the wives just run for office? It's a Catch-22. The reason political wives appeal to voters is because they shy away from talking explicitly about policy. If they were as wonky as their husbands, the magic would be gone, and they'd be just another Washington snake-oil salesman instead of that nice lady from the PTA who shared her marshmallow Jello salad recipe.
First Lady speeches aren't scheduled for prime time so the candidates can enlist their wives as sabre-rattling surrogates; they're not political attack dogs. They're the perennial good cop in a convention full of spiny Washington shit-talking. They're the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Is it any wonder that people find them delightful?