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Should The Candidates' Wives Really Be Off Limits?

I meant to flag this yesterday and never got around to it, but Jonathan Martin had an important post about the back-and-forth over whether the candidate's wives are fair game:

In a Brody File interview, Obama carps about McCain not speaking out against some of the shots against Michelle:

And you know I've said publicly before, and I'll say it again - I think families are off limits. I would never consider making Cindy McCain a campaign issue, and if I saw people doing that - I would speak out against it. And the fact that I haven't seen that from John McCain I think is a deep disappointment."

McCain's camp replies by pointing out that Obama didn't say much when the DNC was in fact using Cindy McCain as an issue.

By declaring families "off limits," Obama takes the high road but he also deprives his campaign and party of an issue.

For example, the DNC this morning blasted out an email about the "'chutzpah' of John McCain refusing to pay for the use of the Hensley jet while still trying to present himself as a 'reformer' who is committed to transparency and accountability,"

Obama now controls the DNC -- why, a day after he flatly says families should not be brought into the race, is his party going after McCain on something related to his wife?

Yes, there are differences. The attacks on Michelle are driven by persona while those about Cindy McCain, so far, are about her family wealth and how it relates to her husband.

But it's the Democratic nominee who is laying down the law here. 

I think Obama's wrong on this. I agree that candidates and their surrogates shouldn't take ad hominem shots at their opponents' spouses the way the GOP has taken shots at Michelle. But, as Jonathan suggests, certainly the spouses' business dealings and finances are fair game if their husbands derive questionable benefits from them. 

Obama's instinct here is understandable. Taking after an opponents' wife, even on a legitimate issue, can look a little thuggish. (And, in fairness, he probably had the ad hominem attacks in mind when he made the "off limits" comment.) But it's often a necessary part of campaigning.

Which brings me to my real interest in this back-and-forth: The unprecedented consolidation of the DNC and other Democratic-Party message organs under the control of the Obama campaign. Under the old system, when the DNC was nominally independent, it was the perfect platform from which to launch legitimate if slightly unbecoming attacks like this. But thanks to the consolidation, the campaign has pretty much forfeited plausible deniability. 

Now, there are real benefits to consolidation--you have a clean, crisp message and few redundant or counter-productive efforts. But it's clearly going to limit what the Democrats can say about McCain, which could be a significant constraint over time. Particularly since McCain is going to have several--possibly dozens of--shadowy groups advocating on his behalf, all of whom he can claim to have no control over.

--Noam Scheiber