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Why the GOP declared open season on Michelle

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Why the GOP declared open season on Michelle

Former Arkansas governor and almost certain 2012 presidential contender Mike Huckabee recently told reporters that attacks from Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and an armada of others in the GOP on Michelle Obama were silly, foolish and counter-productive.

Huckabee’s push-back at the Michelle bashers was as noble as it was futile. The GOP has declared open season on the first lady for the simple reason that she’s not just any first lady. The oft-made comparison is made with the GOP’s ruthless and relentless attacks on Hillary Clinton.

But then there’s the puzzle. Hillary was a major Democratic force inside the White House, as a senator and for a time as a front-running Democratic presidential candidate. She was, in short, a potent political threat. Michelle seemingly is not.

But she is because this is not just any political year. 2011 is the dress rehearsal political year for 2012. And what’s at stake is the White House. The attacks on Michelle are planned, well-timed and calculated to sow even more doubt and discord about President Barack Obama’s policies and, by extension, him. Slamming Michelle is a key part of the dirty pool equation. The safe and sensible things Michelle talks about on child nutrition, obesity, aid to military families, and of course, breast feeding might get brief mention in the soft features section of a newspaper if it came from any other first lady.

She’d be cheered as a first lady who uses her name and position to encourage Americans on health matters and as a staunch advocate for the welfare of military families. But those safe and sensible goals have been twisted, reviled and made the butt of cheap, tawdry, vile quips, comments and racist cartoons from the professional Obama loathers. That’s expected, and routine. But the game changer, with the exception of Huckabee’s criticism of the critics, has been the GOP mainstream and its deafening silence to the attacks.

Making Michelle the target of attack is not new. The GOP sniffed that Michelle would be an especially inviting surrogate to hammer Obama from the earliest days of the 2008 presidential campaign. The out-of-context remark in which she allegedly questioned her faith in America set off bells and whistles that Michelle, just might, be the punching bag for candidate Obama. The Obama campaign sensed the danger and tactfully made sure that Michelle would play the low-key, supportive wife role that presidential candidate’s wives traditionally play.

Once in the White House that quickly changed. She got pilloried for her push of the failed Chicago Olympic bid, and later for uttering a few words on health care reform. Her shopping excursions, her vacation in Spain and her workout routine all became fodder for political sniping, gossip and ridicule.

A viral e-mail buzzed around the nets and blogs for a time that pounded her for her high-salaried and top-heavy staff. A British tabloid even engaged in malicious mischief when it claimed that Michelle’s undergraduate thesis written in 1985 with the hardly incendiary title of “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” was an open call for black militancy.

The aim was to firmly link Michelle in the public’s mind as both a power behind the White House throne and identify her with the alleged bad policies of Obama. The more honest GOP strategists even said as much when Michelle gave them even more fodder when she sent out an e-mail to friends and supporters touting the selection of Charlotte for the 2012 Democratic Convention. Her carefully chosen words touting the city as “vibrant, diverse and full of opportunity” were about as Chamber of Commerce-safe and tame as could be. But that was more than enough for the GOP to spring back on the attack. After all, said one GOP critic, conventions are partisan and political and therefore for a first lady to utter a word about the convention makes her by that logic fair game for attack for playing partisan politics.

When Michelle was asked what role she saw for herself as first lady she was firm and direct, that she had no plans to be an overt political wife à la Hillary or Eleanor Roosevelt, or to be a mouthpiece for her husband issuing political statement after political statement. She saw her role as supportive of causes to improve the health and welfare of children and families. This was no different than the role played by Laura Bush and most other first ladies. None of whom garnered a peep of criticism, let alone targeting and vilification, for their mild advocacy of their pet issues.

Michelle is, of course, not them. And the GOP knows that as the wife of the most politically reviled president in modern times, the open season on her makes as much political sense as the open season on him. That’s the GOP game plan and it’s not likely to change.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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