Ann Romney and Hilary Rosen flap: Must Team Obama always be first responder?

President and Michelle Obama both did damage control after Hilary Rosen's off-key comment about Ann Romney and stay-at-home moms. What will happen the next time a Democratic pundit misspeaks in front of the cameras?

Steven Senne/AP
Ann Romney, front left, wife of Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, addresses an audience during a victory rally in Schaumburg, Ill., March 20.

The Ann Romney flap may have unintentional consequences for Team Obama.

When Democratic activist Hilary Rosen dissed Ann Romney Wednesday, saying she has “never worked a day in her life,” the president, first lady, and countless other Democrats swooped in and condemned the slam on the wife of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Ms. Rosen apologized for her “poorly chosen” words.

So what happens the next time someone in the vast universe of Democratic strategists and cable TV pundits makes an untoward remark about a critical issue or voter group? Will President Obama or his surrogates have to step in? And if they don’t, will Mr. Obama be blamed for tacitly condoning the comment?

Liberal editorialist Jonathan Capehart set up that test Thursday. In a Washington Post blog entry called “Selective outrage: Hilary Rosen vs. Allen West,” Mr. Capehart raised the Florida Republican congressman’s statement Tuesday that he believes there are “about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party.” It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Congressman West said.

Certainly, a preposterous assertion, as Capehart notes. Maybe so preposterous that it doesn’t deserve a reply. But then Capehart scolds GOP leaders for not condemning the McCarthy-esque allegation.

As a practical matter, Obama and Company can’t strike down every off-key remark by an ally uttered in front of the ever-proliferating cameras. They would start to look like kids at an arcade playing Whac-A-Mole.

But clearly, the Rosen comment hit a nerve right as Mr. Romney had effectively locked in the Republican presidential nomination, and attention had turned to the general election. Obama is winning big among women, and needs to keep that advantage to win in November. With one off-hand comment –suggesting that Mrs. Romney can’t understand women’s struggles because she hasn’t worked outside the home – Rosen handed a gift to Mr. Romney right when he needed it.

The Romney campaign has followed with a fundraising e-mail titled “War on Moms.” It says: "If you're a stay-at-home mom, the Democrats have a message for you: You've never worked a day in your life."

According to the latest census data, about 1 in 4 women with children under 15 is not working outside the home. That is a significant voting bloc – and most aren’t wealthy like Ann Romney. Mrs. Romney herself noted on Thursday that she has had struggles of her own, particularly with her health.

In addition, Mrs. Romney has carved out an image as an appealing surrogate for her husband, complete with stories about how exhausting it was to raise five boys. Polls show her favorability rating far exceeds her negatives.

So for Obama, the Rosen comment created a PR emergency on multiple levels: She had disrespected a big voting bloc and had gone after a candidate’s wife. Team Obama pushed the panic button.

“I don’t have a lot of patience for commentary about the spouses of political candidates,” the president said.

First lady Michelle Obama chimed in on Twitter: "Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected,” she wrote.

Rosen’s gaffe was arguably as big as Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom’s Etch-a-Sketch comment – though Rosen doesn’t work for Obama. Still, she has sparked a “mommy wars” discussion that continued to rage Friday. The next time a Democratic pundit blunders on camera – and it will surely happen –everyone will be watching to see whether it merits a presidential response. And yes or no, that will tell us something about Obama’s priorities.

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