Joan Vennochi

The yacht vs. the pickup truck

Democrats are now the party of perceived privilege, and GOP is the party of the people

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / August 1, 2010

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DEMOCRAT JOHN Kerry sets sail in a $7 million yacht built in New Zealand. Republican Scott Brown hits the campaign trail in a GMC pickup truck with 200,000 miles on it.

From Newport, R.I., where Kerry’s “Isabel’’ was berthed before heading to Nantucket, to Rhinebeck, N.Y., where Chelsea Clinton was married in a mansion modeled after Versailles, today’s Democrats are looking more like Louis XVI than Tip O’Neill.

Kick in the First Family’s vacation plans for Martha’s Vineyard, and there’s a real air of Marie Antoinette & Co. retreating to idyllic gardens, while Fox News whips up revolutionary flames. The ethics charges against Representative Charles Rangel of New York are added foie gras.

In 2008, Republican John McCain was the presidential candidate with so many houses, he lost count. Barack Obama was the guy with only one somewhat luxurious home. Today, President Obama presides over a party of perceived privilege, while Republicans accessorize themselves as the party of the people.

Brown accessorized brilliantly during last January’s Senate race in Massachusetts. He’s not mega-rich like Kerry, yet comfortable enough, with five properties and a horse his daughter co-owned for a time with a race track owner. But Brown’s humble pickup truck and barn jacket remain the enduring symbols of his upstart campaign to win the seat held for decades by the late Edward M. Kennedy.

Kennedy was a rich and powerful Democrat who kept a connection to the people in a way that Brown and millionaire Sarah Palin understand. But some Democrats just don’t get it, from Governor Deval Patrick’s fancy drapes and Cadillac to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Armani suits and taxpayer-funded military jet.

It isn’t about having a lot of money. It’s about making people feel you are rubbing your money in their faces, while draining their modest assets for sketchy government programs funded by taxes you don’t want to pay.

Republican Mitt Romney is worth more than $200 million, with enough cushion to invest $35 million in his 2008 presidential bid. His real estate holdings include a $12 million mansion in La Jolla, Calif., that was once owned by actor Cliff Robertson, and a lakefront spread in New Hampshire. But for all of Romney’s grandiose aspirations and political flip-flops, he is wise enough to avoid grandiose mistakes of excessive, public consumption.

Before his marriage to Teresa Heinz, Kerry was living on his Senate salary and a trust fund worth no more than $100,000. Now he is ranked as the wealthiest member of Congress, with assets of at least $231 million. The Kerry family has five houses, a jet called the “Flying Squirrel’’ and a legacy that includes paying to move a fire hydrant from in front of their Beacon Hill home to free up parking space. Now, Kerry’s legacy also includes the Newport-berthed yacht and the impression that he was trying to duck Massachusetts taxes.

This might all be empty, frivolous symbolism, except that in politics, perception matters. In this case, the perception fueled by the Kerry yacht fiasco hurts the Democratic agenda.

If the little guy doesn’t trust the Democrats, that helps the GOP — for now.

While Republicans drape themselves in middle class values, they are sticking it to the middle class. It’s all in the effort to deny Obama and the Democrats any positive political message.

Last week, Senate Republicans rejected a bill to aid small business with expanded loan programs and tax breaks. Before that, Republicans tried to block extension of employment benefits and financial regulatory reforms, which finally passed with minimal help from the GOP.

These just-say-no tactics can catch up with Republicans — maybe not in time for midterm elections, but perhaps in time for 2012.

If you watch what Brown does, not what he wears or drives, it’s clear that he gets it. He’s walking a line that he hopes leads to reelection. It means he can’t vote against every Democratic policy aimed at helping ordinary voters. His vote against extending unemployment benefits was risky business for the junior senator from Massachusetts.

That pickup truck only gets him so far.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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