It was inevitable that a badly outdated but now infamous interview -- given to a Chicago radio station in 2001 by then Illinois Senator Barack Obama, in which he called for "redistributive change" and chided the Supreme Court for not doing more to make that happen -- would be snatched at by Republican rival John McCain and the Fox Network crowd to prove that Obama is a closet Marxist. The intriguing thing about the interview is what's left out. The idea of redistributive change (what Obama actually said), not wealth redistribution, is actually an old idea that Martin Luther King Jr. uttered in several speeches as a build-up to the Poor Peoples March in 1968.
In the interview, Obama even paraphrased the trademark King quip that integrating a lunch counter was a pyrrhic victory without having the money to buy a hamburger at the counter. King was clearly talking about economic hardship among poor blacks and Latinos. King felt that the goal of the civil rights movement revolution was incomplete without an economic boost to the poor.
Obama pretty much said as much and he was and is right. Recent reports on wealth and income show that the staggering gap between rich and poor that King lamented and tried to mobilize thousands to oppose, has grown to Grand Canyon width in the four decades since King's assassination.
But in a twisted, perverse way it's that very gap that is good fodder to knock Obama as a stealth socialist for dare hinting that the middle- and working class should pay less and the rich can and should pay more. The poor in most cases pay no taxes anyway so they aren't even a factor in Obama's alleged wealth seizure scheme.
The American economic sacred cow is that laissez faire wealth is tantamount to a divine right of kings, and any attempt to touch it is economic heresy. Politicians know that's it is a kiss of death to be seen as an advocate for tax and income fairness. That invites being plastered with the socialist tag.
GOP presidents and presidential candidates ritually play the tax and spend card to brand their Democratic rivals as dangers to middle-class wage earners. This stokes fear that underneath the Democrat's supposed taxing and spending the rich will be hammered and the poor will be the beneficiaries. The wealth taking scare has worked in the past precisely because wealth and income iniquities are so great, and the notion that there's nothing wrong with those iniquities is so deeply entrenched in tax policy, philosophy and politics.
Any talk of putting more wealth into the hands of the non-wealthy in the way of tax cuts, a Social Security tax increase on upper income wage earners, capital gain increases, and closing tax shelter loopholes will always draw swift and long shrieks from wealthy individuals and corporations. This is plainly regarded as wealth redistribution downward.
Democrats and Independent politicians from Upton Sinclair to Huey Long to Ralph Nader have railed against the top heavy wealth of the relative handful. They have been routinely branded as crackpots or socialists, and then quickly politically marginalized. In his wink and nod hint that there's a red taint to Obama, McCain simply grabbed at the formula that GOP contenders have traditionally used.
The question is will it work? Yes and no. No, in that millions actually agree with the tax reform crusaders that the tax system is way out of whack and that those from the Wall Street fast buck artists to tax dodging corporate executives wallow in obscene wealth while the poor get poorer and the middle-class get soaked.
Yes, in that millions more middle and working class wage earners dream that they will be rich too someday and are horrified that they could have their imagined wealth downsized by a tax and spend Democrat or worse a Democrat who's branded as socialist leaning.
Obama, Joe Biden cringed in horror at the absurd notion that Obama is a wait-in-the wings Marxist. But there's still method to tossing the damaging political label at him. It's more than just a last desperate gasp effort by McCain to get an edge on Obama. It taps into the deeply held belief and even fear that Obama could and will actually mug the rich and by extension those who fantasize about being rich. That's something that King discovered four decades ago. Obama is simply discovering the same now.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).
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