Michael Kinsley is full of outrage that the Republicans should be trying to characterize Barack Obama as an elitist, but at least he is not surprised. That’s the kind of thing they always do. “With so much going their way in this election, the biggest challenge the Democrats face is simple: The Republicans just play the game of presidential politics so much better. They play it with genius, courage, creativity and utter ruthlessness.” Just look, for instance, at the “lie” — in Mr Kinsley’s view — that they (or their cat’s paw, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) told about poor, helpless John Kerry in 2004, which the craven media did so much to assist by being too timid to call it a lie.
Or take 1988, when it was Gov. Michael Dukakis vs. Bush the Elder. Once again, there were many options available for attacking Dukakis, most of them variations on the undeniable fact that he was a liberal from Massachusetts. What also seemed undeniable when the campaign began was that Dukakis was an unpretentious man from a modest background with an appealing, all-American, immigrant-family success story. His opponent, by contrast, seemed like a parody of an upper-class Republican: son of a senator, fancy prep school and Ivy League education, rich from oil. A lesser party might have decided to take a pass on the whole born-in-a-log-cabin or Harry Truman-look-alike aspect of a traditional presidential campaign. But the Republicans were fearless. They jumped in and turned Dukakis into an arugula-loving elitist, while repositioning George Herbert Walker Bush as a pork-rinds-and-country-music-loving good ol’ boy. In their most daring act of legerdemain, they even made an issue of Dukakis having gone to Harvard (for law school — he attended the wonkish Swarthmore as an undergraduate), even though Bush himself had gone to Yale College and was a member of the ludicrous, aristocratic anachronism the Skull and Bones.
Flattering as this tribute to their ruthless cunning must be to Republicans, they should not let it pass without pointing out Mr. Kinsley’s mistake. It is that elitism to Americans is not a matter of wealth or birth or education. Even in Europe, where that once was true, the elites are not so defined anymore. Nowadays, in the best spirit of American democracy, anyone can be an elitist. All you have to do is believe that you are smarter than other people and that, therefore, the all the other, less-smart people, if they know what’s good for them, should be happy to put you in charge of them. They know better than you do how much money you should be making and how you should be making it and what you should be doing with it once you’ve made it, for example.
Doubtless the elitists’ position on all these things is much more intelligent than yours, but — wouldn’t you just know it? — a majority of Americans have never quite cottoned to having these things decided for them. They’d rather be governed by some pork-rind eating, country-music listening Skull and Bonesman who at least has the basic courtesy to flatter their tastes than by a self-styled intellectual who peers down at them and their regrettable amusements from a lofty height. Mr. Obama may be the grandson of an African goatherd, but he has all the arrogance of a duke — considerably more than most dukes nowadays, actually — when it comes to telling you how to live your life.
We can readily see why, then, Senator Obama should have chosen as his running mate a man who on more than one occasion has said of the President of the United States (who belongs to a different party), “This guy is brain-dead.” Joe Biden, another Senator who, apart from a couple of years of practicing law, has spent his whole working life in the Senate and who has a senator’s idea of “experience” in foreign policy, having run his mouth about it for 36 years, has an “impeccable” working-class background, but he once told a voter that “I think I have a much higher I.Q. than you do.” Believe me, it doesn’t take nearly so much either of brains or of courage as Mr. Kinsley appears to think in order to attack that kind of political imbecility.
And yet, the Democrats always act as if they don’t know what hit them when they are so attacked. What? What did I say? Why don’t people like me and, more importantly, vote for me, when I am showing how ready I am to employ my giant brain in their service? I just don’t understand it. The signs are that Senator Obama understands it as little as Mr. Kinsley or Senator Biden. Hillary Clinton may have understood it a little better. It was she, after all, who pointed out the elitism in Senator Obama’s opinion that only their being “embittered” could account for white working class voters’ belief either in God or in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. That he didn’t have the wit to choose her as his vice-presidential nominee instead of his fellow aspiring elitist, Joe Biden, tells you volumes about where the Republicans will attack — and where their attacks will be most effective — during the coming campaign.