Behind every great man, there’s an incredibly astonished woman. And if you’re a Republican politician, the odds are pretty good she’s not on board with everything in your agenda. Along those lines, social conservatives have a new reason to worry about Scott Walker: Tonette Walker.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Wisconsin’s first lady publicly distanced herself from her husband over the issue of gay marriage. What is more, it’s clear that Scott Walker’s views are out of step with his entire family on the issue.
Consider this excerpt regarding the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling:
“That was a hard one,” Tonette said, pausing and choosing her words carefully. “Our sons were disappointed. . . . I was torn. I have children who are very passionate [in favor of same-sex marriage], and Scott was on his side very passionate.”
“It’s hard for me because I have a cousin who I love dearly — she is like a sister to me — who is married to a woman, her partner of 18 years,” she said.
(Walker’s son acted as a witness to the gay marriage of Walker’s wife’s cousin.)
There are a couple ways to look at this. On one hand, we could be witnessing the case of one family member showing daylight with her husband. It wouldn’t be the first time this issue has proven divisive within a family (see Liz vs. Mary Cheney).
On the other hand, why publicize the disagreement? Nothing happens in politics by accident. Walker has a professional comms shop. Could this be an intentional signal to more socially moderate opinion leaders that Walker isn’t really some neanderthal (regardless of what he has to say to win conservative votes in Iowa)?
Regardless, for social conservatives who already feel like they’re on the ropes, this revelation is even more serious than you might think. For obvious reasons, social conservative leaders have little interest in alienating Walker, but even before this most recent interview came out, one leading socon told me his rule of thumb for evaluating candidates: The trick is to always look at the wife when gauging whether or not a male politician will hold true to his stated social values.
This is a lesson they learned the hard way. From Betty Ford to Laura Bush, we’ve never had a pro-life first lady in the post-Roe v. Wade world. And — the theory goes — it’s not much of a coincidence that, despite all the rhetoric around election time, social conservatives have relatively little legislative progress to show for the many Republican electoral victories that accrued in the last four decades.
Now, as the issue of the moment seems to be gay marriage, we see a similar dynamic where houses are divided against themselves — where, on this issue, at least, Republican politicians and their wives are unequally yoked. It’s hard to be outnumbered in your own family. They may not flip on the issue, but pols seem less likely to champion an issue when the people closest to them vehemently oppose it.
The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world — and not just because it influences future generations.
There are examples that seem to buttress this. Take, for example, Sen. Barry Goldwater’s leftward lurch toward the end of his career. In a 1994 Washington Post article, Lloyd Grove writes about Goldwater’s second wife, Susan:
They met soon after the death of Goldwater’s first wife, Peggy, when she came to take his blood pressure. Some, like John McCain, attribute much of Goldwater’s outspoken contrariness, which occasionally makes him sound like a raving liberal, to Susan Goldwater’s influence.
You won’t hear this mentioned in polite company, but it is similarly thought that Ted Olson wouldn’t have come to support gay marriage, had his conservative wife Barbara Olson not been murdered on 9-11. Olson subsequently married a “lifelong Democrat.”
Consider this from a 2013 LA Times piece:
It is a matter of considerable discussion in Washington how much Olson has changed since his marriage to Lady Booth — who is named after an aunt — and whether it has anything to do with his apostasy on gay marriage.
“I think everybody thinks she’s changed Ted,” said Rosalie Blair, the eye surgeon in Washington who introduced them. “She’s certainly made him a little bit — people will say — a kinder, gentler Ted.”
If nothing else, this simply raises more questions. Scott Walker’s campaign already feels schizophrenic. He’s sending mixed signals on a variety of issues (see his reported “I’m not going nativist” comments to Steven Moore). If you’re a social conservative who cares deeply about the gay marriage issue, it is perhaps wise to consider the maxim which says, If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
UPDATE: The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs reports that Rick Santorum made this same point on Sunday.
Note: And speaking of wives, the author’s wife advises Rick Perry and previously consulted for Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign.