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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Elitism: A Game Two Can Play

Andrew Romano, Newsweek

There they go again.

In a "memo" sent to reporters earlier this afternoon, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis continues Crystal City's aggressive new anti-Obama messaging strategy by reviving the Republican Party's favorite trump card: elitism. Echoing Karl Rove's characterization last month of the Illinois senator as "the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by," Davis writes that "only a celebrity of Barack Obama's magnitude could attract 200,000 fans in Berlin who gathered for the mere opportunity to be in his presence." He continues:

These are not supporters or even voters, but fans fawning over The One. Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand "MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew -- Black Forest Berry Honest Tea" and worry about the price of arugula.

Other than the bit about celebrities fretting over the price of arugula--memo to McCain: they can afford it--there's nothing surprising about the GOP's decision to resort to this time-honored tactic. Why? Because it always seems to work. Consider Bush vs. Kerry. Hillary 2.0 vs. Obama. Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams. "Theoretically, it pigeonholes Obama as a northern liberal with effete tastes," writes the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder. "It works not because of the fact of the thing--windsurfing is not an elite sport--but because it allows partisans to feel superior and allows Republicans to begin to build an entire narrative around their opponents' purported elitism." The McCain camp wants voters to believe that Obama's "arrogance" befits his "celebrity" and makes him "selfish"--unlike (you guessed it) McCain, who always puts "Country First." Or so his slogan says.

The only problem? It makes just as much sense to call McCain an elitist as Obama. Nevermind that the Illinois senator is a bi-racial child from a broken family raised in a modest single-parent household. Or that there are plenty of "country clubs" still unwilling to accept African-Americans as members. Or that the last "celebrity" to occupy the Oval Office was Ronald Reagan, McCain's hero. Simply imagine the memo David Axelrod could send to reporters about the Republican nominee. "Only a celebrity of John McCain's magnitude could star on blockbuster television shows like '24' and appear in big-budget motion pictures like 'Wedding Crashers,'" it would read. "These are not campaign commercials or news interviews, but major Hollywood productions--which is no surprise, given that he's pals with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lorne Michaels. Only celebrities like John McCain own seven homes, date Brazilian models, marry blond heiresses worth $100 million, attend Virginia's tony "old boy" Episcopal High School, forget the last time they pumped their own gas and wear $520 black calfskin loafers by Ferragamo." Get the picture?

My point is not that both Obama and McCain are "elitists." It's that the entire discussion is asinine, and that neither Obama's protein bars or McCain's loafers have anything to do with the business of leading a country. By the time a person decides to run for president--incidentally, a pretty elite office--chances are he or she is a) relatively wealthy and b) relatively out-of-touch with actual human beings, which is what happens when you spend most of your time around other politicians. Not only that, but running for president is by its very nature an elitist thing to do. (Is there a better word than "elitist" to describe someone who believes that he or she is best qualified to serve as leader of the free world?) Ultimately, both McCain, the war hero, and Obama, the biracial pioneer, have led extraordinary lives. That's OK. It's even desirable. Both still know hardship. Both still know adversity. Both would still bring a lifetime of trials and triumphs to the White House. If McCain disagrees, fine. He should explain why Obama--and not he--is too "elitist" to be president. But for the Republican to insinuate that exercise, organic tea and chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars somehow disqualify his opponent from serving is a disappointment. The only thing more unfortunate is that he expects the American people to buy it.

How's that for elitism?

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