Last August, I wrote a post entitled “Barack’s Little Arugula Problem” in which I forecast that “Arugula will be for Obama what the Swift Boat Vets were for Kerry.” Thing is, I was just goofing around and didn’t think that Obama’s summertime “gaffe” (he mentioned arugula and Whole Foods in front of some unwealthy Iowan farmers!) would matter once the actual primaries started and people would presumably care about, you know, important issues.
But lo, here were are in the first week of May, and this was Newsweek’s cover last week...
....and, as Ben Kaplan notes in Toronto’s National Post, the arugula issue won’t die.
And we’re now in this dumb predicament, yet again, of choosing a president based on who we’d most like to have a beer with. (As opposed to sharing an arugula salad with, which is Mark Penn-Karl Rove code for committing sodomy.) It brings me down, down, down to watch our presidential candidates play-acting at being extras in John Cougar’s “Hurts So Good” video, trying to prove their white, denimy, working-class, tavern-dwelling bona fides and arguing over who was less privileged growing up. I’m including Obama, too, who’s been baited into going on a de facto national pub crawl just because Hillary Clinton has somehow convinced a bunch of voters that she’s more a brewski-chugging Scrantonian than what she really is, an abstemious Washingtonian. (I know whereof I speak; I married into a family of brewski-chugging Scrantonians.)
This riles me on two counts. First, why has it become political doctrine that a candidate must prove that he or she is just like the voter? I keep waiting for a candidate to have the guts to say, “Look, I’m not just like you. I won’t pretend that I share your drinking habits, your economic situation, your ethnic background, or your salad-green preferences, if any. But you can be damned sure that I have your best interests at heart, and that I am here to listen to you and represent you. If I were not sincere in this, I wouldn’t be here today asking for your vote.” I think that voters would appreciate this sort of actual straight talk more than the usual, patently phony “common touch” claims of NASCAR fandom and pork-rind addiction.
The second thing that troubles me is that a candidate can so easily be put on the defensive for coming off as “elitist” and therefore “out of touch.” Let’s not delude ourselves: All three candidates–Obama, Clinton, and John McCain–are, by definition, elitists. They are members of one of the most elite institutions on the planet, the United States Senate, and they have adjudged themselves smarter and more qualified than other Americans to lead the country. And that’s fine. I have my issues with each of them and my preference for one over the other two, but I’d rather our pool of candidates come from an experienced, motivated political elite than from an open casting call for a plainspoken “everyman” unsullied by any connection to politics. (Those dream scenarios always turn out badly, anyway; think of Ross Perot, or Homer’s campaign in 2004.)
“Elitist” and “out of touch” don’t necessarily go together. They can–as when Barbara Bush alleged in 2005 that living in a temporary encampment in the Astrodome was “working very well” for Katrina refugees, most of whom “were underprivileged, anyway.”
But I don’t believe that any of the three elitists currently running for president are fundamentally “out of touch” with the American people, as each accuses the other two of being. They’re all wealthy, but none of them exude the who-gives-a-damn Marie Antoinette twittishness of Barbara Bush, or the “So?” insouciance and arrogance of Dick Cheney.
Finally, as much as I think Obama has nothing to apologize for, having willed himself through sheer smarts and drive to overcome his messed-up itinerant upbringing by an unendingly questing single mom–if he wants to live the yuppie dream, let him!–I would like to offer him what I think is a masterful bit of pandering strategy. In the tradition of Grace Bedell, the little girl who encouraged Abe Lincoln to grow his beard, I am encouraging Barack Obama to grow a mustache.
The mustache, though associated in earlier times with urbanity and/or refinement (think William Powell or Clark Gable) has in recent decades come to be an identifier of the disenfranchised white, working-class voter that our current candidates so covet. You ever notice that whenever a newspaper or TV show checks in with “blue-collar voters” at a bar during an election season, they always focus their cameras on a guy like the dude below at the right?
Yet no presidential candidate dares to throw his lot in with the common man by growing some lip fur; we haven’t had a mustachioed president since William Howard Taft left office in 1913. So I urge Obama to be bold, be American, and be a mustache man. It’s one area where Hillary can’t outdo you.