“People don’t need a president who looks down on them. They need a president who stands up for them” – Hillary R. Clinton
There’s a part of my mindset that always gets skeptical whenever I hear political people start to complain that their opponent is “an elitist.”
It always sounds to me like a candidate with an inferiority complex who wants to “bring down” his opponent to his level. It also brings to my mind the schoolyard bully grown up who sees that the so-called “smart kids” have passed him up in life, and wants to “go back” to the days in the past when he was on top of the social pecking order.
SO MY FIRST reaction to hearing in recent days that Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is elitist for comments he made last week in San Francisco about the blue-collar preference for opponent Hillary R. Clinton is to come to his defense.
Barack Obama tries to be one of the 'common folks' during this campaign stop last week at a Shop-Rite store in Pennsylvania. Photograph provided by Obama for America.
Of course, this charge doesn’t surprise me. It is a standard part of the Republican campaign strategy to try to drive a wedge between the working classes and those elements of society who have higher-than-average education levels – but vote Democrat anyway.
If Obama had not said what he said last week to a sympathetic San Francisco audience, something else would have happened that would have inspired the charge of political elitism.
It was always just a matter of time before Republican presidential nominee John McCain started using the “e” word against Obama, trying to claim that an Ivy League-educated lawyer who has written a pair of books that have sold very well does not have a similar lifestyle to a factory worker or to someone actually has to live off the dumpy salary paid to a retail sales clerk or some other unskilled job.
BUT THE KEY to understanding the significance of this charge is not to pay much attention to trying to figure out whether Obama’s lifestyle these days is similar to ours.
It’s not, particularly for the past four years.
But then again, neither is Clinton’s lifestyle or Republican challenger John McCain’s. All political people – particularly those who aspire to positions in Washington – have substantially different interests than we do, which is why they are qualified to take on public policy positions while many of us would be overwhelmed.
Would you really want any of your neighbors to be in charge of the federal government? I wouldn’t, and it’s not because I believe my neighbors to be any less inspired mentally than the bulk of the American public. I expect my public officials to be the type of people who want to raise the quality of life for everybody, and that usually starts with trying to boost their own professional abilities.
WHAT SHOCKS (AND appalls) me about this charge of elitism is that it is being triggered by Clinton, whose own background would have made her the liberal darling of the intellectual set in this country – until Obama came along and took that segment of the Democratic electorate away from her.
Hence, she has had to turn herself into the candidate of blue-collar America – of people who have to work for a living and who actually live from paycheck to paycheck (with few if any possibilities for stashing away money for a rainy day – their economic “basement” is already flooded).
But the idea that an Ivy League-educated attorney who has been a part of the Washington scene for the past 16 years after having been a part of the Little Rock, Ark.-based state political scene for a decade prior to that can now think she is “in tune” with people who work a job purely for a paycheck (rather than a sense of career) is ridiculous.
This charge has the potential to backfire on Clinton during the rest of the primary, particularly if (as the gang of pontificators from “Meet the Press” suggested Sunday) Obama is able to use the debate Wednesday in Philadelphia to explain just what it is he really meant to say on that weekend in San Francisco.
IT COULD COME off as Clinton trying to place herself on a political pedestal and make negative pronouncements on her challengers. It could come off as arrogance on her part, and could further stir up the Barack backers to despise Hillary and want to turn out en masse to vote against her.
The real damage from Obama’s comment will come in the autumn when the general election campaigning is under way. McCain will use this clip over and over and over to try to make lower-income people think of Obama as something foreign to their way of thinking.
Of course, McCain and his Republican allies were going to do that, regardless of whether Obama had kept his mouth shut in San Francisco or not. They would have found some other factual tidbit or quotation from Obama to distort into a charge that he’s “out of touch” with the American people.
At least now, the Obama campaign knows exactly what factual tidbit will be used to stir up this charge (which is always meant to get lower-income people who have been hurt by Republican political policies to put aside their losses and vote GOP anyway). If they have any brains, they will get ahold of this charge and manage to knock it down well before the Nov. 4 general election.
IF ANYTHING, CHARGES from Clinton or McCain are not what matter – and not just because the “elitism” charge itself is bogus. What matters is how the Obama people handle themselves in the face of an attack.
Will Obama come up with a reasonable explanation for what he meant to say (which actually is not that inaccurate – there are people who use those issues as excuses for their own failures in life)?
Will he manage to turn the charge around and show how it is his opponents who are out of touch with the public? I can’t help but think Obama’s years as a political organizer on Chicago’s South Side put him face to face with more lower-income people in need of government assistance than either Clinton or McCain have ever encountered.
Or will Obama let it overwhelm him? Will it get to the point where we the voters will start to think that he might not be able to handle crisis situations and might not be the person we want in charge when that 3 a.m. phone call (which has now reached mythical status) arrives in the presidential bedroom?
CLINTON HAS CLAIMED we don’t know enough about Obama to trust him to be president. He has not been “vetted,” so to speak. Well, that’s what is happening now. He’s getting tested, and he could wind up coming out stronger as a result.
Insofar as the “e” word charge is concerned, I will concede that to some people, a taint of political elitism is a negative. Of course, many of those people were never going to vote for any Democrat to begin with. So it really can’t be seen as a political loss of support.
But I am also convinced that the overwhelming majority of the American people are basically intelligent enough to realize that this charge is too stupid to take seriously.
If Obama truly is of the presidential caliber that a majority of Democrats who have voted thus far believe him to be, he will be able to turn it into a negative against McCain and Clinton for bringing up such a “non issue” to begin with.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the spin Barack backers want to put on (http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post/caitlinharvey/gGBpNz) the “e” word story.