To charge that your opponent does not know what it means to go to work every day can be dangerous to your own political health. I learned this on May 3, 1974, in a Cleveland City Club debate between two Democrats embroiled in a bruising campaign for Ohio’s U.S. Senate nomination: the then-appointed senator, Howard Metzenbaum, and his challenger, retired Marine colonel and U.S. astronaut John Glenn.
Metzenbaum, a self-made millionaire lawyer-businessman, emphasized his private-sector success and went so far as to suggest that Glenn “had never held a job.” Here is Glenn’s rebuttal to that charge:
“I served 23 years in the United States Marine Corps. I served through two wars. I flew 149 missions. My plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire on 12 different occasions.
“I was in the space program. It wasn’t my checkbook. It was my life that was on the line ...
“You go with me to a Gold Star mother and tell her that her son did not hold a job. ... You go with me on Memorial Day coming up, and you stand in Arlington National Cemetery — where I have more friends than I like to remember — and you tell me those people didn’t have a job.
“I tell you, Howard Metzenbaum, you should be on your knees every day of your life thanking God that there were some men — some men — who held a job ... and their self-sacrifice is what has made this country possible. I’ve held a job, Howard.”
What followed immediately upon Glenn’s words was 22 seconds of uninterrupted applause. And just 96 hours later, Glenn won the Senate primary going away.
As soon as I heard Democratic strategist and CNN commentator Hilary Rosen say that Ann Romney, the mother who had stayed home to raise five sons, had “never worked a day in her life,” I thought of Metzenbaum’s politically suicidal “never held a job” line some 38 years earlier.
Both President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s campaigns saw the high-risk and high-reward potential in the exploitation of this blunder. As the victim of a seemingly dismissive and unjust rebuke, Ann Romney could be publicly transformed from appealing help-mate to sympathetic, perhaps even compelling, surrogate.
Obama’s big lead in the polls among women over Romney could be put at risk, especially if married mothers who are not employed outside the home sensed that Democrats were devaluing their worth.
That is why Obama campaign manager Jim Messina wasted no time in stating: “I could not disagree with Hilary Rosen any more strongly. Her comments are wrong, and family should be off-limits. She should apologize.”
Obama unequivocally distanced himself from any suggestion that Ann Romney (and every other American mother) did not work every day of her life. In an interview with Bruce Aune of KCRG-TV of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he said, “There is no tougher job than being a mom,” adding, “Anybody who would argue otherwise probably needs to rethink their statement.”
Then came a policy statement: “I don’t have a lot of patience for commentary about the spouses of political candidates.”
Just remember this: In 2008, when Obama won a larger percent of the popular vote than any Democrat in history other than Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, John McCain won a majority of married voters with children. In 2004, married voters with children provided George W. Bush’s margin of victory over John Kerry. Beyond the unfairness of the “never worked a day in her life” gaffe, this is about the raw numbers of who will choose the next president.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.