Thursday, October 16, 2008
You Say that Like It's a Bad Thing
Pundits tend to be a lagging indicator. This is particularly true at the end of a political pendulum swing. We've been conditioned by thirty years of certain arguments working--and John McCain made most of them last night against Barack Obama: you're going to raise our taxes, you're going to spend more money, you want to negotiate with bad guys, you're associated somehow--the associations have gotten more tenuous over time--with countercultural and unAmerican activities.
Again, these arguments have "worked" for a long time. The Democrats who got themselves elected President during most of my career were those most successful at playing defense: No, no, I'm not going to do any of those things! And so the first reaction of more than a few talking heads last night was that McCain had done better, maybe even won, because he had made those arguments more successfully than he had in the first two debates. I disagreed, even before the focus groups and snap polls rendered their verdict: I thought McCain was near-incomprehensible when talking about policy, locked in the coffin of conservative thinking and punditry. He spoke in Reagan-era shorthand. He thought that merely invoking the magic words "spread the wealth" and "class warfare" he could neutralize Obama.
But those words and phrases seem anachronistic, almost vestigial now. Indeed, they have become every bit as toxic as Democratic social activist proposals--government-regulated and subsidized health care, for example--used to be. We have had 30 years of class warfare, in which the wealthy strip-mined the middle class. The wealth has been "spread" upward. The era when Democrats could only elect Presidents from the south, who essentially promised to take the harsh edge off of conservatism, is over. Barack Obama is the most unapologetic advocate of government activism since Lyndon Johnson--which is not to say that his brand of activism will be the same as Johnson's (we've learned a lot about the perils of bureacracy and the value of market incentives since then)--and he seems to be giving the public exactly what it wants this year. Who knows? Maybe even the word "liberal" can now be uttered in mixed company again. [...]
The point is, this is a very good year to be Senator Government. Ronald Reagan used to say that the most frightening nine words in the English language were "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." That is no longer true. This year, the most frightening eight words are "I'm John McCain and I approved this message."
I was saying the same thing to people in the room watching the debate last night: does McCain really think that "spreading the wealth around" is going to sound like a bad thing to a middle class that has been taking a pounding under the upwards-redistributionist Bush years? Does McCain really think that people will be frightened by the thought of "government provided health care" (it's not, it's government provided insurance, but either way), when tens of millions are uninsured, underinsured and tens of millions more face the prospect of losing health care?
Quite the contrary. The middle class is hurting. The thought of tax cuts for the wealthies isn't selling the way it did when people either assumed that they, too, would soon be part of "the club" or that wealth trickles down in copious amounts. This is an election in which even people who think Obama was himself in a terrorist outfit with Bill Ayers are going to vote for him anyway because he promises government provided health insurance.
Joe the Plumber, meet Joanne the Trickled-On:
John McCain should be careful. If he keeps shouting "class warfare," the people might in fact take up arms. And won't he be surprised when the angry mob doesn't attack the guy trying to spread the wealth with the masses, rather than horde it in his myriad palatial estates.
The next was a woman, late 50s, Democrat but strongly pro-life. Loved B. and H. Clinton, loved Bush in 2000. "Well, I don't know much about this terrorist group Barack used to be in with that Weather guy but I'm sick of paying for health insurance at work and that's why I'm supporting Barack."