The McCain-Obama Housing Debate
Barack Obama and John McCain are really going at it. In a recent ad, Obama accuses McCain of not knowing exactly how many houses he has (a surprisingly complicated question—McCain owns four houses with his wife, and Cindy McCain owns three others by herself). Anyway, McCain has responded aggressively by reminding voters that Obama got his four million dollar house with the aid of convicted felon Tony Rezko. Obama surrogate Tim Kaine took a not-very-veiled shot at McCain’s age (McCain “can’t count that high”). Liberal journalists are having a field day with this issue. Meanwhile, McCain has released yet another “The One” ad, featuring more Ten Commandments clips and sarcastic voiceovers.
Now, I enjoy an aggressive campaign as much as anyone, and I’m not squeamish about campaign tactics. I though that the “Swift Boat” attacks on John Kerry in 2004 were perfectly legitimate, as was McCain’s “Celebrity” ad. I think that (almost) all’s fair in politics—Bush’s attempt to paint Kerry as a windsurfing elitist was perfectly acceptable. But even so, the new house flap is wholly stupid. The number of homes a candidate lives in is totally irrelevant.
If Obama used this attack as only a passing jab, then perhaps it could be overlooked. But he is using it as the center of his offensive against McCain. This attack is too innocuous to really be considered dirty politics—but Obama can and should do better.
John McCain is old, and rich. It’s not unheard of for millionaires to own several houses. Obama constantly reminds voters he owns only one house—but that house happens to be a mansion worth four million dollars, and he only purchased it with the help of a convicted felon.
This whole story should be as simple as that, but it isn’t. Obama and McCain have released their respective ads, taken their verbal shots and each other, and gave their supporters their talking points. But meanwhile, both candidates seem to have forgotten that their actually are important issues in this election, issues that are, perhaps, more important than the minutiae of McCain’s real estate dealings.
The fault of this situation lies with both candidates, but Barack Obama, perhaps, shoulders most of the blame. Debates and town hall meetings are among the few places where politicians can make their views known, while holding them up to criticism and scrutiny. (TV or radio rarely provides such opportunities—politicians rarely venture into unfriendly arenas).
Obama, however, has refusing to participate in any debates with McCain—or even to appear on the same stage with him—outside of the three traditional fall debates. Obama knows his debating weakness, and seeks to minimize it. (Although the wisdom of dodging McCain’s debate invitations is doubtful. It seems likely that if the Obama campaign sees him as a poor debater, it could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the more Obama dodges McCain, the more scrutiny his answers will receive when he finally must debate).
Obama lack of desire to engage in substantive debates, while annoying, is hardly rare, or the worst sin a politician can commit. Neither are irrelevant attack ads. But such attacks are still harmful—elections are supposed to be about competing ideas. Both McCain and Obama agree with that premise, and promised to conduct their campaigns respectfully and maturely. But both have wasted little time breaking that their promise—and that is sad. The American people deserve better. Or rather, since the American people seem to enjoy such insubstantive attacks, American democracy deserves better.