George Stephanopoulos tried to get chief Obama strategist David Axelrod to say something—anything—interesting about the Biden choice, but Axelrod was relentlessly on-message ticking off his points: Biden is “accomplished,” “expert,” “working class,” full of “wisdom,” has “overcome adversity,” and he’d be forthright with Obama. Otherwise, an Axelrod sentence, you might say, consisted of a noun, a verb, and four-more-years-of-George-Bush. If you want a whole paragraph, he’ll throw in: “McCain can’t remember how many homes he owns.” Of course, he wouldn’t play at this week’s round of the tedious, empty game of estimating the future—how much of a bump the convention should give Obama. Why is such short-term prophecy a serious question? The only answer to such questions ever ought to be: Che sera, sera.
Meanwhile, the Democrats were running hard this week with the gift of McCain’s disputed house holdings. In the midst of real economic privation, even justifiable panic, it was almost as if the question of home ownership, which is no laughing matter for many millions of people, had elbowed its way sideways into the campaign, albeit in an unexpected, displaced, symbolic fashion. Stephanopoulos pushed the question of McCain’s real estate onto Rudy Giuliani, who broke new ground in the annals of property assessment. “They both live in million dollar homes,” Giuliani said, “so what is that about people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones? “Well,” Stephanopoulos responded, “Senator Obama has one.” Giuliani: “Senator Obama—I don’t know—one—one million dollar house, two, three, four? You’re—you’re sort of not in a position to be pointing at other people, when you are in that one percent of America in terms of—I mean how many people live in one million dollar homes? They both do.”
“One—one million dollar house, two, three, four” .You expected Giuliani to break into the punch line of an old gag. (One house, four houses—pretty soon you’re talking about real estate.) Still, Giuliani gamely insisted that McCain is “a regular guy that almost any American can relate to,” apparently oblivious to the fact that, given the recent real estate bubble, many of these almost-any-Americans know that a million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to buy. Meanwhile, neither Stephanopoulos nor anyone else in national TV has, to my knowledge, explored this supplementary item unearthed by Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel: that the McCains spent $273,000 on household servants in 2007, according to the senator’s tax return. It might also be worth noting that Obama’s house comes with a $1.32 million mortgage. And McCain’s?
The housing inventory kerfuffle is symbolic politics with a vengeance, which does not mean it is trivial—remember George H. W. Bush apparently not recognizing a barcode? By itself, Housegate is surely, in one way, misleading, as George Will pointed out to the ABC round table, noting accurately that the Democrats’ great twentieth-century knight, Franklin Roosevelt, was a rather imposing landowner himself. Which led Will to one of his better lines: “It’s time we accepted that the question is not whether an elite should rule but which one.”
This pithy condensation of an ancient conservative apothegm has much to recommend it. But in the current setting, of course, it’s also vastly misleading. FDR represented not Hudson Valley landowners of Dutch descent, but a united Democratic Party. Barack Obama starts from the Ivy-League-degreed and other professionals (who represent about 40 percent of the Democratic vote), allied with African-Americans and the young (no elites at all), hoping to assemble a united Democratic Party from there. By contrast, John McCain also represents two elites: First, the naval aristocracy into which he was born (including a spell as a Navy lobbyist), and, second, the beer distribution heirs and top-tier stock owners who financed his political career. (About to make a pile of money on the sale of Anheuser-Busch to a Belgian company, Cindy McCain is. Whatever happened to the hue-and-cry about the imperial ambitions of offshore capital and the selling off of America’s great homeland assets?)
A word now on an earlier moment, when Stephanopoulos asked Axelrod’s opinion of what he called “ a really interesting piece in Newsweek magazine this morning, called ‘A Liberal’s Lament,’ by the historian Sean Wilentz.” Stephanopoulos summarized Wilentz as arguing “that while Barack Obama’s had soaring rhetoric, he has yet to put his stamp on the liberal tradition.” He quoted Professor Wilentz as follows: “[Obama] needs to fulfill the glamorous and more difficult task of explaining specifically where he wants to move the country and how he proposes to move it above and beyond reciting his policy positions.”