David Mamet wrote a great line for his movie Heist, and Danny DeVito delivered it: “Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money!” But the American attitude toward money is far more nuanced than that. As much as we need money and want money, we often envy, resent, and disparage those who have money. Money tantalizes us, corrupts us, obsesses us. And this mix of emotions is even more complicated when we look at the issue of money and politics.
Which brings me to the Nevada Senate race, where tea-party Senate hopeful Sharron Angle is currently airing a TV ad that hammers Harry Reid for “living large in the D.C. Ritz Carlton” at a time when Nevadans are mired in recession. The Republican party in Washington has seconded that line of attack with its own TV ad: “Harry lives at the Ritz-Carlton while thousands are losing their homes.”
Stoking populist resentment is probably a smart strategy, particularly in tough economic times; when people are hard up for money, they’re more likely to lash out at somebody who has money, particularly if the target is a politician who happens to live in a place that has “Ritz” in the title. The Republicans are floating this strategy in the California Senate race as well, tagging the incumbent as “Millionaire Senator Boxer.” Yet even though the strategy may be smart, the message itself is inane – and manifestly hypocritical, given how frequently the Republicans laud wealth as an all-American aspiration.
At the risk of stating the obvious: On the national level, most elected politicians – in both parties – have money. Some are rich to begin with. Others cultivate rich friends and subsequently become rich. Most of the time, voters don’t care or even notice that their leaders have money. The list of senators who own comfortable Washington houses, or apartments in downtown hotels, is extensive and bipartisan.
It’s particularly amusing to see Angle and the Republicans whacking Harry Reid for his one-bedroom, second-floor apartment – at a time when the Republicans are championing rich Senate candidates whose personal campaign expenditures dwarf Harry Reid’s total net worth. Literally. Wrestling magnate Linda McMahon is remotely competitive in the Connecticut Senate race only because she’s spending roughly $50 million of her own money, with plenty left over to live large on land, as well as at sea aboard her yacht, Sexy Bitch. In California, Carly Fiorina (Senate race) and Meg Whitman (gubernatorial race) would never have put themselves on the radar if not for their personal wealth. Ditto Rick Scott, the tainted health care magnate, in the Florida gubernatorial race.
And the national Republican party is darn glad to have them all, because when the rich use their money to fund their own races, the party doesn’t have to use its own.
Nevada has the highest unemployment rate at a time when Reid is reportedly worth more than $3 million. That may well be catnip for disgruntled voters. But if that message is so great, then these would have been equally applicable…
1982: “At a time when the national unemployment rate is 10 percent, President Reagan is living large on the 680-acre California ranch that his investment counselor found for him.” (Reagan’s reported net worth, as measured in 2010 dollars, was $13 million.)
2006: “In an era with zero job growth, endless war, and deepening deficits, President Bush is living large in Crawford and Kennepunkport, cocooned in his family’s third-generation oil wealth.” (Bush’s reported net worth is $20 million.)
Heck, let’s go all the way back to the 1790s: “At a time of bitter partisan division in Philadelphia, President Washington is living large on his 8000-acre Virginia plantation, shielded from everyday concerns with the help of his 300 slaves.” (Washington’s reported net worth, in 2010 dollars? $500 million.)
And let’s face it, both parties today play this faux-populist game. Washington Democratic strategists have appended the word “millionaire,” as a pejorative, to the names of at least three GOP House candidates. And in a South Jersey TV ad, House Democratic incumbent John Adler is mocking opponent Jon Runyan’s ownership of a 20-acre spread in Mount Laurel (gated entrance, pool); as far as I can determine, Adler’s implied message is that Runyan is wrong to live in his home at a time when most struggling Americans can only dream of living in such a home. I never hear Democrats grouse about how FDR lived in splendor at Hyde Park during the pits of the Great Depression.
So enough already with this sloppy messaging about money. We already have enough demagoguery. That’s why they call it demagoguery.
Second-best dialogue from Mamet’s Heist:
Thief: “Nobody lives forever.”
Thief’s wife: “Frank Sinatra gave it a shot.”