Republican field: They may be rich but do not call them elite

When Mitt Romney delivers a shout-out to fast food and Rick Perry suggests global warming is a hoax, the two are doing more than offering a dining preference or challenging the consensus of mainstream science.

The two main Republican presidential adversaries are engaged in a ritual as old as the republic itself: Taking on that despised slice of the hoity-toity known as elites.

It is why the manor-born George H.W. Bush expressed his love of pork rinds, why John F. Kerry paid a political price for windsurfing and why candidate Barack Obama was mocked for discussing arugula in Iowa. (Twenty years earlier, it was Michael Dukakis and Belgian endive.)


Americans typically want a president who is wiser, worldlier and steelier of spine than the average citizen — so long as the person has a common touch, can relate to the regular Jane and Joe and doesn’t lord superiority over the rest of us.

Thus candidates go to lengths to assert their proletarian bona fides: Just because your father was Michigan governor and you’re worth tens of millions of dollars doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a stop at Subway or don’t love flying around the country in coach, as Romney has suggested on Twitter.

(His regular-guy credibility was somewhat undermined, however, when Romney argued he was only doubling — not quadrupling, as some reports had it — the size of his La Jolla mansion.)

The privileged background and patrician demeanor of the former Massachusetts governor makes him — notwithstanding his new wardrobe of skinny jeans and open-neck shirts — ripe for up-from-below attacks from Perry, who was raised wearing home-sewn garments in a house that lacked indoor plumbing until he was 6. Never mind that Perry, now a millionaire, enjoys much the same lifestyle as Romney.

“As the son of tenant farmers, I can tell you I wasn’t born with four aces in my hand,” Perry recently told the crowd at an Iowa fundraiser, playing off Romney’s cozy upbringing as well as a debate jibe that Perry’s job-creation record as Texas governor was mostly good fortune.

Perry taps a similar vein in his attacks on the scientific community and his stated doubts about climate change, academia being a favorite target of anti-elitist sentiment. Without offering specifics, Perry has charged that “there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”

Though experts scoff and the majority of Americans believe in global warming, Perry’s contrarian stance may resonate with acolytes of the “tea party” movement, a hotbed of skepticism toward all things establishment and a prized constituency in the Republican nominating fight. A recent Yale University survey found more than half of the tea party faithful, 53%, rejected the notion that the Earth’s atmosphere is getting hotter.

“There’s the idea that real Americans produce something of value. They’re farmers, manufacturers, construction workers,” said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University expert on populist politics. “They aren’t like bankers or stockbrokers or professors, who play around with words and play around with other people’s money.”

That suspicion of the high and mighty — or, at least, those who act so — is deeply rooted.

After all, the country was born of rebellion and some portion of the population has had its back up ever since. Part of it is an innate skepticism about the concentration of power, be it political or cultural, especially in the hands of far-off leaders.

The country also lacks the rigid class structure of so many others; Americans prize the notion that, with enough moxie, they can achieve great things, regardless of where they start in life. In politics, that has long meant a bias toward men — and later, women — of humble background and vigorous performance, the more rugged the better.

In the seminal presidential race of 1828, supporters of Andrew Jackson cast the election, in the words of a popular slogan, as a choice between “John Quincy Adams, who can write, and Andy Jackson, who can fight.” Jackson, the mud-on-his-boots former general, defeated the superbly pedigreed Adams and, as historian Ron Formisano notes, American politics have never been the same.

The election hastened “the decline of deference, the rise of egalitarianism and a feeling that ‘I’m as good as you,’ ” said Formisano, who teaches at the University of Kentucky. “Now every candidate vies to be a man of the people.”

That is not to say high station has automatically disqualified someone from being president. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy both grew up rich, yet each managed to forge a strong bond with the American people. (It is difficult to imagine any politician today, however humbly they began, engendering that sort of abiding affection.)

If anything, the last difficult decade has made the public even more dubious of their supposed betters, be they government experts who failed to prevent the events of Sept. 11, or the wizards of Wall Street, whose manipulations helped tank the economy. Far from offering a remedy, many believe the country’s politicians — Democrat and Republican — have lost touch.

Said Don Sipple, a GOP strategist, “People see the value of their home falling, their retirement plan has been decimated by the downturn in the stock market and they’re saying, ‘I played by the rules and look what happened. No one’s bailing me out.’ When the rewards system in this country gets turned on its head, it creates a tremendous amount of resentment.”

So if elites got the country into this mess, with the economy sputtering and gloom spreading, what are voters to do? Polls show most would happily sock it to the comfortably off by raising their taxes, but then what? Elect someone mediocre, someone utterly lacking any special capacity to help lead the country out of its malaise?

Not necessarily, said Peter Hart, a Democratic strategist who has spent more than 40 years sampling public opinion.

“Voters don’t see it as a choice of either/or,” Hart said. “They’re looking in 2012 for someone who will not only care for me and relate to me and understand what I’m going through, but also someone who gives a sense that I can count on them and the ability to make things happen.”

Whether or not they fly coach.