In Mike Honda’s tawdry new ad about his challenger, Ro Khanna, the first thing that strikes you is the shoes. A lanky Indian-American meant to be Khanna strides down the street in what looks to be size 13 brown dress shoes. Then he gets into a limo and straightens the lapels of his suit. The camera lingers on his shoes.
“Some politicians are bought and paid for before even stepping foot in office,” says the female narrator, who goes on to accuse Khanna of supporting the outsourcing of jobs, favoring tax breaks for millionaires, and refusing to protect Social Security. The fake Khanna, a smarmy character, answers a cellphone call labeled “Wall Street.” “Yo!, let me see what I can do,” he says.
On the merits of the issues, the ad is all wrong: Khanna wants to protect Social Security, scrapping the tax cap currently in place. He has written a book about American manufacturing and wants to create jobs in the United States as part of a plan to bring back money that companies hold abroad. He wants to close some of the more obvious tax loopholes for the rich. In a word, he is a progressive Democrat.
But there’s something more sinister at work here — an attack that takes unsubtle aim at race and the smoldering resentment that many people hold toward those who have succeeded. In the congressional race between two Democrats in the 17th District, the irony of the Honda ad is that he is appealing to Donald Trump’s voters.
The problem is that the Khanna figure does not simply portray one man. He evokes stereotypes and prejudices about Indian-Americans, who occasionally face something analogous to the anti-Semitism that once did not bother to hide itself in America.
The attack is not simply wrong about Khanna, who was born to middle-class parents in Philadelphia and was paying off his students loans long after he graduated from the University of Chicago and Yale Law School. As former President Jimmy Carter noted in endorsing Khanna, the 40-year-old Fremont attorney chose public service when he could have picked far more lucrative routes.
The Honda ad is really objectionable because it aims at a whole strata of people, suggesting that successful Indian-Americans are arrogant characters who want to do Wall Street’s bidding by outsourcing American jobs. Arrogance knows no race: And Honda should understand that.
Think for a minute what would happen if the Khanna campaign were to hire a Japanese-American actor for an ad attacking Honda, showing him dealing with his high-rolling contributors, or “cranes,” donors who gave him $1,000. Think about the outcry over racial coding.
(In fact, the Khanna campaign is going after Honda for falling asleep on the House floor and being enmeshed in a House ethics investigation. But the ad campaign doesn’t use a Japanese-American actor. And the points have a basic truth about them.)
“He is using the very serious issue of racism to divert people’s attention away from the fact that before ever stepping foot in Congress, Ro Khanna has been bought out by Wall Street billionaires, corporate fat cats and extreme Republicans.”In a prepared statement released Friday, Honda rebutted the charges of racism and stuck to his basic attack. “Like a boy who cries wolf, Ro Khanna is once again making false allegations,” the statement said.
This empty rhetoric simply isn’t good enough. As a toddler, Honda was taken away to the Japanese internment camps during World War II because of one of the most loathsome American chapters of fear. That story is a central part of his political legacy. Of all people, he should understand the nasty sentiments that his ad is stirring.
An open letter signed by a group of prominent Silicon Valley Indian-Americans made this point Friday, noting that Honda has always stood for a high standard of tolerance and acceptance.
“It is exactly because you have embodied our conscience for so long that we are so deeply disappointed in your behavior in this election,” said the letter.
In truth, the new ad does not represent the Mike Honda I’ve known for 30 years — a genuinely decent man who has kept the lessons of his childhood uppermost.
Just before the big shoes in the ad, there’s a shot of Honda himself. “I’m Mike Honda, and I approve this message,” he says.
Can that be true? It seems like a different and more desperate man.