Lynn Forester de Rothschild’s opinion piece, “Democrats Need to Shake The ‘Elitist’ Tag” in yesterday’s Wall St. Journal had a couple of insightful nuggets, including,
If Barack Obama loses the presidential election, it may well be the result of a public perception that he is detached and elitist — a politician whose expressions of empathy for hard-working Americans stem more from abstract solidarity than a real connection to the lives of millions of citizens….
While Obama supporters attempt to dismiss the charges about their candidate’s perceived hauteur, they confuse privilege and elitism. Elitism is a state of mind, a view of the world that cannot be measured simply by one’s net worth, position or number of houses. Throughout American history, there have been extremely wealthy figures who have devoted themselves to genuinely nonelitist principles. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt is probably the best-known example.) At the same time, many from modest backgrounds, like Harry Truman’s foil, Thomas Dewey, personified elitism.
De Rothschild likens Obama to Adlai Stevenson, explaining,
…while Stevenson’s stylish, articulate, high-brow manner thrilled the nation’s intellectuals, he could never connect with large numbers of working-class Democrats who found him aloof and aristocratic…The “new politics” Democrats have found their new, improved Stevenson in Mr. Obama…It is ironic that the candidate who comes from a more privileged background — John McCain — can genuinely point to at least one crucial moment in his life when elitism went by the boards.
The author goes on to overstate her case with more debatable broad-brush generalizations about both the Democratic Party and Senator Obama. But in these excerpts she does suggest a concern that merits consideration. For three election cycles now, Dems have nominated brilliant policy wonks, highly able, accomplished men of exceptional integrity and compassion, who have trouble getting traction in the white working/middle class. The three nominees have often been out-manuevered by two upper-class, make that ruling-class Republicans who were somehow able to project a persona that resonates better with the middle class. Quite bizarre, when you think about it.
Even more ironic, Senator Obama, who lived with his grandparents for seven formative years, has more real-life experience living in the white middle-class than Bush, McCain and several other recent GOP presidential candidates put together. That he doesn’t try to affect a folksy persona in his interviews and speeches speaks well of his integrity and seriousness of purpose. How much it helps him will be determined on Nov. 4.
McCain, for all of his character flaws, is very comfortable and relaxed enough to affect a ‘regular guy’ persona. One of his strengths as a candidate is that he is a naturally-gifted actor, who can do crocodile tears about bipartisanship or project a self-effacing persona on Saturday Night Live with equal panache. And to give McCain and Bush due credit, they both have a good ear — they can talk the talk of the middle class, though neither has ever walked the walk. No doubt McCain’s ‘Hanoi Hilton’ experience gives him additional leverage.
Candidate character and persona are always important, in some elections more than others. And yes, there are millions of “low information voters” who vote based on such criteria. But I agree with Ed’s Tuesday post, “No Issues, Please“, that issues still trump such considerations with millions of voters. In this election cycle in particular, Dems have a very strong advantage in this regard, and that has to come across loud and clear over the next seven weeks. If you had to boil the republican’s grand strategy down into one word, “confusion” would do as well as any. It’s up to us to insure that they don’t prevail.