Paul Begala on Obama and Romney: Elitists for President

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photos (left); Evan Vucci / AP Photos

And so the presidency of the United States has come down to a choice between Thurston Howell III and the Professor. It’s interesting—and surprising—that in this populist time both parties have nominated leaders from their elite wings.

And I mean elite. In Mitt Romney the Republicans have the apotheosis of wealth worship. Romney has amassed a fortune so vast he is expanding his $12 million beachfront mansion and installing an elevator ... for his cars. For his cars, people. If you’re insanely rich, you might have an elevator in your mansion. But a lift for your Lexus? Keep in mind he’s running for office, for Pete’s sake. What’s he going to do if he wins? Use orphans as human golf tees?

Barack Obama is an elite as well. He’s a millionaire author (although Romney could buy and sell him a hundred times—well, probably just buy him once and lay everyone off). But more important, he is the kind of elite that Democrats love: an academic elite. A professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, president of the Harvard Law Review, graduate of Columbia University: the egghead trifecta.

Yes, we Americans admire financial success; we don’t hate the rich. But we resent folks who got rich by rigging the system. Romney made millions in part by loading companies with debt, driving them into bankruptcy, and laying off their workers. The workers who lost their jobs had their health benefits canceled as well—but Romney and his partners made millions. That’s not how Steve Jobs got rich.

By the same token, we admire academic success. Judging by all the bumper stickers that say, “My child is an honor student at John Foster Dulles Junior High School,” we are raising a generation of geniuses. Who wouldn’t want their kid to go to an Ivy League school? But we resent smartypants, pointy-headed intellectuals who look down their noses at us and lack common sense. (As my old friend Zell Miller used to say, “They don’t know gee from haw.”)

Each party has a vibrant and energetic populist movement. The Tea Party on the right and the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left have done the near--impossible: they have moved millions of Americans to get off the couch and vote on something other than American Idol. Each movement has powerful, principled criticisms of the parties’ nominees: Tea Partiers don’t like that Mitt Romney increased the Bay State’s debt by 16.4 percent and increased taxes and fees by $750 million. Occupy lefties don’t like Obama’s refusal to endorse single-payer health care and his increase of troop strength in Afghanistan.

So which elitist can better tap into the populist spirit? So far Romney has had a case of Marie Antoinette Syndrome. Every time he tries to connect with a middle- class voter he makes the Grey Poupon guy look like Joe Lunchbucket. He brags about his friends who own NASCAR teams and NFL franchises. He casually makes $10,000 bets. He says the $374,000 he made in speaking fees isn’t a lot of money. When a kid gives him an origami duck made out of a $1 bill, all he has in his pocket to replace it are hundreds.

Romney apologists will say I’m taking this out of context. Baloney—or rather, Wagyu filet mignon. The context is that Romney truly is out of touch, and middle-class voters may conclude that he is not on their side.

And President Obama? He has at times seemed out of touch as well. Like when he described working-class Pennsylvanians to a well-heeled crowd in San Francisco as if he were Margaret Mead describing the indigenous people of Samoa: “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” That comment was patronizing and insulting. It was also made four years ago when Obama was in a death match with Hillary Clinton. In the four years since, he has sometimes lapsed into professorial pedantry, but he hasn’t made the kind of belittling comments about middle-class folks that Romney makes almost every week.

While far from an Everyman, Obama does a better job connecting with what Bill Clinton calls “walkin’- around folk”—because beneath that Ivy League ivy there are middle-class roots. His mother struggled, he earned scholarships, and as recently as 12 years ago his credit card was being rejected at the rental-car counter. And there are a lot more voters out there who have been turned down at the rental-car counter than there are millionaires building elevators for their limousines.