A single issue has defined the 2016 election cycle, and it’s not what you think it is. No, it’s not Bernie’s economic populism. And it’s not Hillary’s emails. It isn’t even racially-motivated violence. It’s spousal attacks.
Verbal attacks on candidates’ wives have roots deep in our democracy, going all the way back to when Andrew Jackson killed Charles Dickinson (no, not that one!) in a duel for defaming his bride. Jackson was in some ways the Donald Trump of his day, what with his populist rhetoric, everyman appeal, and viral-ready racism. But unlike Jackson, Trump is a master of wife attacks, rather than defense.
This past week, the GOP primary has been dominated by frontrunner Trump and second place Ted Cruz’s spousal volleys. It began when Cruz supporters took a break from writing long-winded comments under YouTube videos of trains to mock Melania Trump for appearing in a risqué photoshoot some years ago. Ever the gamer, Trump fired back:
Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2016
This where the story gets interesting. Cruz has risen to the occasion to defend his wife Heidi. Meanwhile, he has just received the endorsement of Jeb Bush, a man widely known for failing to defend his wife against similar attacks:
At first, these threads seem unconnected. After all, it’s debate nerd Cruz getting bullied by preppie Trump, as cool alpha captain of the swim team Jeb lends a wink to the downtrodden, hideous Cruz. Just high school, right? Wrong.
Jeb right now is playing a complex game of Coward’s Chess. After failing to defend his wife for most of last year and crumbling for it, he fears more artillery attacks not only on Colomba, but most of all on himself. Despite having exited the Presidential race in shame, Jeb knows that he’s just one Tweet or one debate away from Trump viciously mocking his wife’s appearance or manner of dress or race, forcing Jeb to go through the excruciating experience of having to defend the woman he loves. It’s this fear — that cameras will once again be in his face as he smiles and shakes his head impotently — that keeps Jeb lying awake at night with beads of sweat all over his face.
Moreover, even though Jeb is no longer running for President, he is still campaigning to save his position as 2nd in the Bush dynasty rankings. Within the famously hierarchical Bush clan, we’re seeing a cutthroat fight for the office of Jeb between its current holder and family cutup Neil. Jeb already has his hands full with the tenacious Neil’s pointed personal attacks and attempts to poison him with arsenic, and he can’t afford to leave his Wife Flank open to attack from Trump.
So to assuage his night terrors and keep his place near the top of the Bush Totem, Jeb turned to the only person oleaginous enough to help him: Ted Cruz.
The Jeb-Ted alliance is a perfect match for both men. Jeb brings to the table vital Establishment support, including $380 million in dark money donations still left over from his failed campaign. And
Cruz is a cutthroat candidate who doesn’t care about or even understand things like “decorum” or “emotions” or “human facial expressions.” Unlike the nervously self-conscious Jeb, Cruz and his wife are built to withstand all sorts of vicious personal attacks. They truly don’t care what others think about them. Go ahead and tell Ted Cruz he’s a deformed mutant whose face resembles a deflated Mylar balloon. He’ll look you straight in the eye and say in that grating, adenoidal voice that “it’s time to get trans people out of restrooms.”
By bravely cowering behind Cruz and his wife, Jeb is making an extremely smart play. I should know — I’ve employed similar tactics in my own life. For instance, a few weeks ago, I was walking down Canal St. when an aggressive man came up to me selling a “mix tape.” Not wanting to fall for another scam, I leapt into action, scanning my surroundings until I noticed a group of schoolchildren. I deftly blended into the gaggle of kids, using them to keep distance between me and the salesman until the threat was neutralized and I had an opportunity to call the police.
Yet with a vulnerable, quivering Jeb behind him, Cruz is likely to suffer even heavier rounds of Wife Attacks from Trump. Just last night, Trump unleashed this vicious broadside:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2016
It is clear that we’ve entered the Wife Stage of the primary, and how the three remaining GOP candidates react will define who gets the nomination. Both Cruz and Gov. John Kasich will have a tough time going on the offense against Trump’s supermodel wife, so they’ll need to parry attacks as best they can. Fortunately for Kasich, the vagrant Governor hasn’t seen his wife in 8+ years, not since the two were separated in a boxcar-hopping screw-up that left them in two different parts of the country.
If Trump were to insult Kasich’s wife, he’d get a drawn out “I hope the she’s good…you know how it is….just….it’s a big country” that would yield nothing. If Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Mrs. Kasich, the homeless pol would no doubt lick his lips in comical anticipation of a canned treat. If anything, attacks on Kasich’s wife are most liable to backfire, sending sympathy donations to the itinerant candidate who has been constantly pleading for “just a few bucks to get my old lady a Greyhound ticket…not Bolt Bus. Not after what they did to…they had it out for me.” That just leaves Cruz.
So how should Cruz defend his wife? As a man who has covered thousands of political wives, I feel like I have an insight. The thing that wins Wife Wars isn’t fury, but patience. The Senator just has to face down Trump with a smile while the billionaire is hurling abuse about Heidi Cruz potentially being a dom, Albanian, or having undesirable flat feet. When he’s done bloviating, Cruz should turn to the audience and say “I see you’ve conceded your point.” This is the kind of “At long last, sir, have you no decency?” moment that changes the course of elections, or at the very least arrests a rival’s wife offensive. Furthermore, Cruz could go on the counterattack by bringing up Trump’s previous divorces. I can already hear Cruz saying in his diseased 1930s baseball announcer voice, “Well, I liked my wife so much I didn’t go shopping for two more, Donald.” That’s the kind of thing that will leave a mark, and bring into question whether Melania will be Trump’s final wife, the one that he will be buried with in his Eternal Tomb. All Cruz has to do is pull the trigger.
Either way, one thing is for certain. Whether Cruz outflanks Trump, Kasich hops a train out of dodge, or Hillary unexpectedly attacks both leading candidates’ wives, I’ll be there to cover it!
Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years, and is the author of “Think-ocracy: The Rise Of The Brainy Congressman”. Got a question for the Dig? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet to @carl_diggler.
To try CAFE’s Morning Shot email, sign up here.