The Secrecy Surrounding Obama’s Vice President Pick and McCain’s Housing Gaffe

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

August 22, 2008

E.J. Dionne joins David Brooks and Michelle Norris on All Things Considered to discuss the secrecy over Barack Obama’s vice presidential pick and McCain’s housing gaffe.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: As the Democrats prepare for their nominating convention next week and the presumptive nominee, Barack Obama, prepares to announce his running mate, it’s certainly a good time to check in with our regular political commentators. David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times, and E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Welcome to both of you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.

NORRIS: Now first question that has everyone on pins and needles here in Washington and elsewhere – who is Barack Obama going to tap as his VP? I know you both happen to like Joe Biden, but E.J., you noted that this is a test of whether the campaign really deserves its reputation for discipline, and they seem to have met that test with a leak-proof operation. What does the process and the timing of this decision say about this campaign?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, I think that the discipline is something you’ve never seen in the Democratic campaign before, and that’s significant. It looks like Obama is as interested in making a governing choice as he is in making an electoral choice, that he’s looking for somebody whom he’ll be comfortable governing with, whom he can learn something from. And I think that I, at least, whether my president is somebody I voted for or not, I want a president who’s comfortable surrounding himself with people who may be smarter than he or she is and who may know things that he or she doesn’t. And I think Obama’s giving a sense that he is very comfortable doing that in choosing a vice president.

NORRIS: And David, people generally vote for the top of the ticket. They vote for the president, not necessarily the vice president. But in this election cycle, with a Democratic  nominee who is crossing a new threshold, is the number two pick more important?

BROOKS: I don’t think it’s important in a narrow, political sense. I would not expect a candidate, a vice presidential candidate, to pick a state or to carry a swing district. What it does is it tells you about the mind of the nominee. Does he think he needs experience? Does he think his lack of experience in Washington is a problem, he wants somebody to supplement that? Does he think he needs somebody who’s been through the worst life has to offer and can bring him some depth of character?

Because there will be a time – and Obama’s friends have told me this – when he’ll go in that cabinet room and he’ll issue a decision that nobody else in the room agrees with, and he wants to look across the table, see the vice president, and know that he has his total and unconditional support. So is he looking for that kind of person? And so it’s a window into Obama’s soul, this decision, and to me that’s what makes it the most important, not the narrow politics of it.

NORRIS: Let’s turn to the follow-up from John McCain’s how-many-houses gaffe. He was asked a simple question – how many houses do you own? – and he seemed to sort of lose his train of thought, couldn’t come up with a specific number. It’s pretty clear that the Barack Obama campaign was saving up its opposition research on this one, found just the right moment to pounce on this.

David, how much does this hurt John McCain, particularly as so many Americans are losing the one home that they have in the foreclosure crisis?

BROOKS: I’d say medium. You know, we’ve got a vast oversupply of houses. And if Cindy McCain is using her money to soak up some of that oversupply and build up the price, I think that’s a notable public service and we should all buy multiple homes.

No, I don’t think it’s going to be a big problem in part because John McCain has many flaws, but seeming like a spoiled rich guy is actually not one of them. And there are plenty of good candidates who have a lot of homes, plenty of bad candidates who have no homes. I think there’s a very low correlation between personal wealth and public virtue, and so I think this will sting because it’s embarrassing when he doesn’t know how many homes he has. But over the long run, I do not think people see John McCain as a spoiled rich guy.

NORRIS: Are there questions of whether people will think, does this guy understand me? 

BROOKS: Yeah. Well, that is the doubt, and that was a theme that hurt George H.W. Bush. But again, when you go back to the vulnerabilities of each candidate, John McCain, because of his military record, people think he understands suffering and pain. They may like his economic policies, they may dislike his economic polices, but I don’t think they’ll see it as a sign of personal decadence, which is really what this is going toward.

NORRIS: Now, E.J., you say in a recent column that Barack Obama, as much as he may be trying to make of this housing gaffe on the part of John McCain, has his own problem in dealing with his own empathy deficit.

DIONNE: Well, first of all, I think the house is a much bigger deal than David does. I mean, first of all, other than Donald Trump, I don’t know how many Americans couldn’t answer that question.

Secondly, the McCain campaign has made such a big deal of going after Obama as some sort of elitist. And the mere appearance of this story tells a lot of Americans something they didn’t know, which is John McCain is very rich, and I don’t think most people actually knew that because they looked at him largely through the prism of his military service and not through the prism of the fact that he married a very, very rich woman. So I actually think this story is one of those stories that’s damaging, and it will help Obama on this empathy front.

I think that Obama, when he talks about public problems, can be very clear about what he thinks. But he needs to show more empathy for people who are struggling out there. I talked to a congressman called Joe Sestak from Pennsylvania, who said a very interesting thing. He said, I don’t even think it’s that people need to know more about him. They need to know that he knows them.

And that’s where he could actually take a lesson from Mr. Empathy himself, Bill Clinton. And I think at this convention, you are going to see Obama talking more about understanding the plight of people who are suffering since, if you look at his own life, he is hardly someone who had things handed to him.

NORRIS: Is the convention a place to do that, though, that big stage, or is that best on one-on-one – going to Home Depots, having Philly cheese steaks with people?

DIONNE: Your point’s really well taken. I think that the rally as such is not the perfect medium for him from now on, even though he’s going to do some of them. He does need to do more one-on-one in neighborhoods, but there is nothing like a convention speech to tell people who you are. More people are going to listen to that than have heard just about anything else in the campaign so far, and so that is the place he has to start.

Listen to the full interview »