The Edwards standard and John McCain
During John Edwards' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, media regularly treated his personal wealth as a key to assessing his policy proposals -- a standard that is not being applied to John McCain.
It often seemed as though the news media was incapable of running a story about Edwards' anti-poverty proposals without noting his own wealth. The Washington Post, for example, ran a 203-word blurb about Edwards' eight-state poverty tour, opening it with a 28-word reminder of the candidate's fortune: "John Edwards is battling back the 'three H's' that have dogged his campaign -- expensive haircuts, a lavish new house and a stint working for a hedge fund."
That was nothing new for the Post, which spent much of 2007 in an apparent bid to become the nation's leading source of haircut journalism (four separate articles in the paper's December 11, 2007, edition mentioned the Edwards haircut, many months after it first made "news.") A later article about the poverty tour reported in the fourth paragraph: "Edwards urged reporters to 'please stay focused on the stories we heard' from the workers, rather than the candidate." Paragraphs five, six, and seven then dwelled on "a series of controversies that cast doubt on the image he has cultivated as a millionaire lawyer who as the son of a millworker understands the plight of those with less than he has."
When Edwards exited the race, the Post noted "Edwards's focus on the poor was muddied by tales of his personal good fortune. News stories told of his $400 haircuts, of an ostentatious North Carolina home and of his work for a hedge fund."
The Post certainly wasn't alone. Journalists of all stripes agreed: it was important to discuss Edwards' personal wealth in reporting and assessing his policy proposals. Many explained this belief by claiming that Edwards' proposals to reduce poverty and help the middle class were hypocritical, given his own wealth. This was transparent nonsense; that simply isn't what it means to be hypocritical. But the transparency of the nonsense didn't make it any less common. Others conceded that it wasn't hypocritical to be wealthy while advocating policies to help the non-wealthy, but argued that it was poor "optics." Whatever the reason, there was broad consensus in the media that Edwards' personal wealth should be part of discussions of his policy positions.
But the media doesn't apply that standard to John McCain.
Last week, the Center for American Progress Action Fund released a new report by Michael Ettlinger estimating that under McCain's tax plan, he and his wife, Cindy, would save $373,429. That's nearly $400,000 -- per year, not over the course of their lifetimes. (Under Barack Obama's plan, the McCains would save less than $6,000. The Obamas would save nearly $50,000 under McCain's plan, and slightly more than $6,000 under Obama's plan own plan.)
By the standards the media applied to Edwards, the fact that McCain supports tax policies that would save him and his wife nearly $400,000 a year -- and require massive cuts to public services to pay for those tax breaks -- should surely be news. Unlike the media's focus on Edwards' wealth, which did nothing to help voters understand the substance of his proposals, McCain's potential savings under his tax plan actually would help illustrate how much the wealthy would benefit from the plan.
At the very least, McCain would seem to have the dreaded "optics" problem ascribed to Edwards. With voters jittery about the economy and a crushing budget deficit, what could be worse "optics" than a wealthy candidate proposing massive tax cuts for his wife and himself?
Surely, then, The Washington Post, having obsessed over Edwards' wealth, has noted Ettlinger's findings in its reports about McCain's tax plans, right?
On June 21, two days after the report's release, the Post ran a front-page article about the candidates' tax and budget policies: "Republican John McCain vows to double the exemption for dependents and slash the corporate income tax. ... McCain has proposed even bigger tax reductions [than Obama], including an extension of all the Bush tax cuts, permanent limits on the AMT and a 10 percent reduction in the corporate tax rate." The Post didn't mention how much the McCains would save under his tax proposals. It didn't so much as hint at their massive personal wealth. And in more than 1,300 words, the Post didn't include a single word about the income distribution of McCain's proposals.
On The Chris Matthews Show, Matthews aired a clip of McCain attacking Obama's tax plan -- but didn't point out that McCain and his wife would save more than $360,000 less under Obama's plan than under his own. Like The Washington Post, neither Matthews nor any of his guests made even passing mention of McCain's personal wealth. (Matthews on Edwards last year: "John Edwards, that dude with the hot-ticket haircuts, now wants the rest of us to cool it on expensive cars.")
Again, this isn't unique to the Post and Matthews. The Ettlinger estimate was completely ignored by the news media. Beyond that report, I don't remember ever seeing a major-media report about John McCain's tax policies noting that, due to his wealth, he would fare quite well under his own proposals. And in a couple hours of Nexis searches, I haven't been able to find one.
Perversely, it seems the conventional wisdom among the media is that it's more acceptable for a wealthy politician to propose policies that help the wealthy than policies that benefit the middle class and the poor.