Gore a Class Warrior?
No sooner had Al Gore's convention speech been dubbed "populist" -- because he assailed "powerful forces and powerful interests" -- was he accused of engaging in class warfare. Anytime a politician suggests that monied interests are screwing consumers and citizens and that an appropriate response is anger and resistance, he or she is whacked for being divisive, backward-looking, and politically naive.
In The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan huffed, "Gore's speech all but announced the party was returning to habits and assumptions that were not just pre-Clinton but pre-Carter." (Were HMOs and hyper-inflating drug prices -- two Gore targets -- a problem in the pre-Carter years?)
Fred Barnes opined, "Rather than extol the private sector for producing this great prosperity we're having in this country, he demonized the private sector. At one point in his speech, Gore sounded like Fox Mulder from the X-Files, talking about powerful forces and powerful interests." (Actually, Gore only blasted a few sectors, mainly Big Oil, Big Tobacco, HMOs, and pharmaceutical companies. He left unmentioned the telecom biggies, the energy monopolies, Big Ag, the securities industry, and military contractors, among others.)
Morton Kondracke cracked, "Unless George W. Bush absolutely blows it and collapses in the debates this fall, I think we have witnessed Al Gore kicking away the presidential election. He was emphasizing the 1890s, 1930s populism. He handed the entire political center of the country to George Bush."
George Will snorted, "He said because of our heroic labors in the vineyards for eight years, everyone's doing splendidly, except for the fact that everyone is oppressed by the mighty and the powerful and the special interests. And I'd wish he'd make up his mind."
Republican spokesman Cliff May declared, "People don't want somebody doing what Al Gore is doing which is this class warfare -- pitting one group against another -- I don't think Americans are in the mood for it."
Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for George W. Bush, remarked, "Class-warfare language...sends a signal to the center, to the key ticket-splitters who do go back and forth later, that he's more a divider than uniter. And that's going to be a little problem for him down the road."
Days after the speech, the Bush campaign zapped out a press release -- headlined "Americans won't agree with Al Gore's class warfare" -- which contained nothing but a column written by Cokie and Steven Roberts. The duo approvingly quoted Al From, the chairman of the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council, who complained about Gore's tack: "A redistributionist appeal doesn't work anymore. This is a different country. Attacking oil companies and pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies will not win elections, I guarantee you." (It certainly won't impress the corporate lobbyists who finance the DLC.)
The Roberts team also cited an unnamed strategist "close to the White House" who groused, "Once you have a class warfare message, you can't appeal to the upper middle class. Democrats have to be the party of the new economy." The swing vote in this election, the Roberts argued, will be "wired workers" and an attack against "Big Money" does not make sense to these voters.
Poor Gore. He offers the most tepid populism -- who's on the side of oil companies, drug manufacturers, and HMOs? -- and he's branded and assailed as a modern-day William Jennings Bryan.
Gore's mild-mannered populism -- let's see if he even sticks with it -- has not pittied one group against another; he has merely maintained that a few interests have more than their fair share of power in this political system. Who doesn't believe that? Look at the assumptions underlying the arguments of the anti-populists. They presume that only factory lugs are pissed off at HMOs, that in a time of proclaimed prosperity voters don't give a damn about industries that rip them off and corrupt the workings of government, that when conventional economic indicators are strong there are no significant economic conflicts, that calling for powerful corporate interests to be held accountable and not granted special influence is equivalent to advocating wealth redistribution, and that only citizens self-identified as liberals care about the excesses of corporate power. Even Silicon Valley yupsters enjoying the dot-com gold rush (as much as it still exists) have to contend with pain-in-the-ass health care companies, have to fill up their SUVs, and have to worry about their elderly parents' prescription drug bills.
The wonderful wired economy has not led to wider health care coverage. Nor has the Info Age produced health care security for elderly Americans who cannot afford medications. Many are taking bus trips to Canada to buy cheaper drugs there. Only in America, as Joe Lieberman might say.
The most profound mis-assumption made by the anti-populists is that class warfare only flows from bottom to top. What do you call it when corporate lobbyists win legislative favors that lessen the tax bills of their patrons and thereby increase the burdens of other taxpayers? If not "class warfare," then "corporate warfare." Corporations lobby for trade agreements that lead to factory closings in the United States. Is that not an assault on working-class citizens? What about corporations that finance congressional campaigns and then persuade Congress to block workplace safety and environmental standards? They are obviously placing their own interests ahead of the health of workers and consumers. Sounds like class warfare to me.
Tax policy is an area rife with silent class warfare. A few weeks ago, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit outfit in Washington, released a report on the $951 billion in tax cuts passed this year by the Republican-led Congress. The group found that 61.8 percent of the ten-year give-backs would go to the top 10 percent of taxpayers -- those who make over $92,500. (Half would go to the top 5 percent -- those bagging $130,000 or more a year.)
This is the dreaded redistribution of wealth the anti-populists decry -- but in the other direction. And it's not that the wealthier are getting more because they send more taxes to Washington. "The tax cuts," the Center notes, "would not simply be provided in proportion to taxes paid; the share of the tax cuts going to high-income taxpayers would exceed the share of federal taxes this group pays. Moreover, the notion that tax cuts should simply mirror the distribution of tax burdens is a curious one. It implies that if income disparities widen and a disproportionate share of the income gains from economic growth goes to high-income individuals, causing the share of taxes that group pays to rise, high-income individuals should be made still better off by being given a large and increasing share of any tax cuts enacted."
Aiding the rich disproportionately would be bad enough, but these tax cuts also consume much of the surplus available for other matters that largely benefit middle- and low-income Americans. "The current Congressional path of passing one tax cut after another, with the big tax-cut dollars geared to affluent individuals, leaves no room for any other siginificant policy initiative if a policy course is followed that is consistent with fiscal prudence," the Center concludes. "This raises the question: with 44 million Americans lacking health insurance, a child poverty rate far above that of Canada and western Europe, lack of Medicare coverage for prescription drug and catastrophic health care costs, serious deficiencies in our education system (especially in the big cities), and major environmental challenges, are large tax cuts for those who have gained the most from the current boom really the nation's greatest unmet need?"
The Bush tax cut -- twice as big as the GOP cuts -- skews in similar fashion. An analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice found the Bush plan awards 61.6 percent of its $1.9 trillion in tax cuts to the top 10 percent of taxpayers. The bottom 60 percent would receive 11 percent of the cuts. On the campaign trail, Bush likes to talk about Waitress-Mom, who has trouble making ends meet and who needs a tax break -- that is, when he is not babbling near-incoherently about the details of his tax proposal. This is how he recently tried to explain them:
"Between now and the next 10 years, our budget's going to grow from roughly $1.9 billion to an additional spending of $1.9 trillion to an additional spending of $3.3 trillion. That's before we even account for the surplus ... We will spend $3.3 trillion over the next 10 years on top of a $1.9 trillion budget. We've still got trillions of dollars left of the surplus, and surely we can give some of the money back to the people who pay the bills."
Well, you get the drift. But the problem -- besides the fact that the plan confuses its own advocate -- is that indeed only "some" of the money goes back to "people who pay the bills," like Waitress-Mom. Most of it flows to people who can afford to hire other people to pay their bills. As with the GOP tax legislation, the Bush cuts would disproportionately transfer wealth to the well-heeled and threaten policies and proposals designed to assist the less well-to-do.
Despite what the chatterers and Republican partisans pretend, class warfare does exist. Unfortunately, Al Gore is not likely to be as committed and deft in his practice of this form of battle as those who, without irony or shame, use the term against him.