Sunday Watch 8-24-08

In which house dwellers throw stones

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.”

It was as if Obama had for months been confining himself to “pulsing theatrics” (another phrase from Professor Wilentz), had not given speech after speech declaring his passions and views, propounding plans for health care, energy, jobs, loans, Iraq, and the American position in the world as specifically as anyone in any presidential campaign of recent memory.

Axelrod fired back accurately:

Well, I don’t accept that that’s what Barack Obama hasn’t been doing, and I think that he will give a clear picture again this week of where we have to go. He feels strongly that…a healthy economy and a healthy country involves one… in which everybody gets to participate, in which there’s shared prosperity, in which we unite behind a common purpose instead of a kind of special interest bazaar we’ve seen in Washington these past few years that have basically wrecked our economy and put us on the wrong course. He understands that the middle class is the backbone of this country, and the middle class is in trouble right now, and they’re not getting any help from Washington.

This piece, by a prominent Clinton-supporting historian who went to the mat to support them during the impeachment campaign of 1998—and who was roundly accused of “partisanship” for his pains—now accuses unnamed “liberal intellectuals” of “largely abdicat[ing] their responsibility to provide unblinking and rigorous analysis instead of paeans to Obama’s image” while refusing to accept that Obama’s nomination, like it or not, is legitimate. Wilentz upholds Franklin Roosevelt as the exemplary true-blue liberal campaigner, when Roosevelt gave 100 percent support to a 1932 Democratic platform that called for a balanced budget and a 25 percent cut in government spending in the trough of the Depression. Forgetting the historian’s mandate to treat history as it is, not as an echo of sometime else, he takes flight from the political setting and mistakes Obama as Jimmy Carter. He forgets that a campaigning candidate does not campaign in the abstract but against specific candidates under specific circumstances.

After much travail, the Clintons are reportedly on track to speak for Obama at the convention and rally those of their supporters who go by the name PUMA—Party Unity My Ass. Now one of their most eminent supporters has embarrassed them.

Todd Gitlin , who teaches journalism at Columbia, is the author of a new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.