Clearly, Obama's people know a good thing when they see it.
Asked yesterday in an interview with the Politico how many houses he owns with his wife Cindy, a beer heiress, John McCain was, well, not quite sure. "I think - I'll have my staff get to you," he said. "It's condominiums where - I'll have them get to you." The the quote hit the web around 8:00 this morning--and presumably some low-level staffer on the 11th floor of 233 N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago squealed, smiled and sprinted straight for David Axelrod's office.
The onslaught began immediately. First, spokesman Bill Burton emailed reporters to say that "this story about John McCain losing track of how many houses he owns is a telling moment that helps to explain why he still thinks 'the fundamentals of our economy are strong' and why he offers just more of the same economic policies that we've gotten from President Bush for the last eight years." Just, you know, FYI.
Next, veep hopeful Tim Kaine pounced, claiming on CNN that McCain "couldn't count high enough apparently to even know how many houses he owns." By 11:00 a.m., Team Obama had already cut and released an ad on national cable (above) "contrast[ing] Americans' struggle to pay their mortgages with McCain's optimistic talk on the economy and his personal wealth." "It's seven," says the announcer, answering Politico's question as an image of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. appears on screen. "Seven houses. And here's one house America can't afford to let John McCain move into." By 1:30, Chicago had deployed "high-profile surrogates in 16 states across the country"--including "governors, members of Congress and state legislators"--to "hold conference calls and press conferences" meant to "highlight McCain's uncertainty," even going so far as to launch a phone survey in Florida designed to "find Floridians who, like McCain, have lost track of the number of homes they own." Meanwhile, Obama himself weighed in from Virginia. "If you don't know how many houses you have, then it's not surprising that you might think the economy is fundamentally strong," he said. "But if you're like me and you've got one house - or you were like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so that they don't lose their home - you might have a different perspective."
To say that Team Obama is "salivating" over McCain's misstep would be an understatement--slobbering is more like it. It's easy to see why. As Ben Smith notes, Obama's rapid-fire "seven homes" campaign represents "a sharp new line of attack--that McCain is out-of-touch with the economy in part because he's so rich." On a textual--as opposed to subtextual level--this is absolutely correct. With our current economic downturn so directly related to the housing crisis, any gaffe that has the potential to convince vast majority of Americans--who generally know how many houses they own--that McCain is too wealthy to understand what's going on is a gift from the political gods. Not only is it ideal fodder for Leno and Letterman, but, as Marc Ambinder notes, "it fits perfectly into Obama's 'out-of-touch Washingtonian' versus 'new ideas for today's world' frame." And what's more, it nicely complements McCain's out-of-context crack that only people who make over $5 million are rich, which we predicted last week would hang around his neck like "some sort of gilded albatross" for the remainder of the race--and which Obama was sure to mention today in Virginia. When the Illinois senator told skittish Dems Monday that he was "ready to hit back," he wasn't kidding. It's pretty much all he's been doing since returning from Hawaii.
That said, I'd argue that the most important aspect of "seven houses" episode--the reason it matters more than the $5 million mess--is subtextual. The key is that phrase "out-of-touch." While Obama and Co. are openly attributing McCain's "out-of-touchness" to his wealth, it's not hard to imagine the Republican nominee's inability to keep track of his real estate holdings will subconsciously strike some voters as having to do with another, more penetrating personal attribute: his age. After all, the implicit contrast here is not between the candidate's bank accounts; Obama himself raked in more than $4 million last year. It's between their grasp of seemingly obvious realities. When nearly four in ten voters say they're concerned that you're too old to be president, being seen as "out of touch" has the potential to do even more damage than it did to John Kerry in 2004. At 60, the windsurfing wonder with an heiress wife and and handful of homes was merely "rich." I suspect that voters don't (and won't) see McCain--a former POW who lived through years of excruciating torture--primarily as a man of privilege. But they already think he's old. And in case you're wondering whether Team Obama is aware of the "senility" connotation, look no further than today's insta-ad. It says "asked how many houses he has, McCain lost track. He couldn't remember." That's a bit more loaded than "McCain wasn't sure."
The truth is, I can kind of understand McCain's confusion. A scion of Arizona's wealthy Hensley family, his wife Cindy is reportedly worth $100 million. It was she who purchased all of the properties in question--including two multimillion dollar condos in the exclusive beach enclave of Coronado, Calif.--and beyond the ranch in Sedona, Ariz., the family condo in Phoenix and an apartment in the D.C. suburbs, McCain probably hasn't spent much (if any) time at any of them. (Cindy began visiting Coronado while recovering from her 2004 stroke, for example; McCain, who's apparently "not a beach person," was living in Washington.) Still, that explanation will do little to quiet his critics or erase the (accurate) impression of his family's wealth.
Over at the Atlantic, Ambinder wondered whether McCain's slip was "worse than a scanner moment." *He was referring, of course, to the famous reports from Feb. 5, 1992 that President George H.W. Bush, then running for reelection, had seemingly marveled over an ordinary supermarket checkout scanner at the National Grocers Convention in Orlando, Fla. "Amazed by some of the technology," he'd said. The scene caught on with reporters, who used it to symbolize Bush's lack of familiarity with the details of ordinary American life--his "out-of-touchness," so to speak. Nevermind that the device that had impressed the prez wasn't a regular scanner but rather a prototype that could "weigh groceries and read mangled and torn bar codes." ("Bush acts curious and polite, but hardly amazed," wrote NEWSWEEK after reviewing a video of the incident.) By then, it was too late. Slipping toward recession, the country skipped the swell who didn't know his way around a supermarket in favor of a blue-collar upstart who could "feel their pain."*
And here we are, still searching for "scanner moments."
UPDATE, Aug. 22: More evidence that Team Obama is pushing the age angle. In an email to reporters this morning rounding-up coverage of McCain's slip, Obama spokesman Bill Burton is sure to note "how out of touch all of John McCain’s years in Washington have made him." Emphasis mine.
UPDATE: Another houses ad--this one explicitly titled "Out of Touch"--from the Obama camp. Notice the opening visual (McCain puttering around in a golf cart with 84-year-old former President George H.W. Bush himself) and the catchphrase ("Country Club Economics"). And it all happens in slow-motion. Can you say "retirement community"?
*Adapted from an earlier Stumper post.