One could be forgiven for thinking this election has degenerated into pure silliness with the charges and countercharges of elitism.
This all culminated with Obama's recent ad reminding us that McCain couldn't remember how many houses he and his wife own. Of course, owning a lot of houses doesn't mean a person can't be a good president, or even that he can't sympathize with the plight of the working class and the poor. Perhaps most famously, FDR came from a wealthy family and gave us the New Deal.
So when Obama told us that McCain owned seven houses, I was tempted to say, "so what?" I might even have chided the Obama campaign for making it an issue. The problem, however, is that McCain thoroughly deserved this attack. He's the one who aired ads accusing Obama of being the world's biggest celebrity who couldn't possibly relate to the travails of regular people. McCain's campaign noted that Obama went to an elite private school in Hawaii and to Harvard; this was all proof that Obama is a haughty, arugula-eating elitist. Never mind that Obama spent part of his childhood on food stamps and took out loans for college and law school.
The Obama ad was perhaps an even more suitable comeuppance for the Republican Party as a whole. It has spent the years since 1968 accusing Democrats of failing to support American values. The Republicans convinced religious voters to resent rich liberals who supposedly expressed disdain for conservative principles. They painted Democrats as aloof, haughty, and disconnected from mainstream American values. This strategy worked so well that Democrats have started using it on each other. It was Mark Penn who advised Hillary Clinton to paint Obama as "not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking or values."
The Republicans painted John Kerry and Michael Dukakis as elitist to maximum effect. In 2004, this line of attack was particularly rich coming from George W. Bush, a man who has had so many things handed to him in life. Of course, both parties use populism. The Democrats want us to resent Wall Street executives. Republicans want us to hate snooty Harvard professors, even when like Bush, they went to Harvard AND Yale. That's why it's disingenuous for Republicans to criticize Democrats for playing on class warfare. Both parties are fighting a class struggle, just in different ways.
Obama's detractors have tried to make a bad thing out of his intelligence, his education, and his healthy eating habits. But I want someone elite in the White House. I want someone who is well-educated, or at least curious about the world. The person need not have a Harvard degree to qualify. Abraham Lincoln never had more than an elementary school education, but he worked relentlessly on educating himself, even becoming a lawyer. He would not have thought that mangling the English language or knocking another candidate's good education were promising qualities in a leader. So I don't mind if my president speaks French, or yes, eats organic food -- on balance having healthy leaders who don't die of heart attacks from too much McDonalds is a good thing.
I really hope we can stop playing this game at some point. After all, it distracts from those trivial things called the issues. But I'm not holding my breath.
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