12/21/2010 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Liberal Divide: Recovery vs. Revenge

A tenured professor might not notice it. Nor would a television talk show host. A single parent driving a 12-year-old Toyota between two jobs will definitely see it and appreciate it. A two percent cut in the Social Security payroll tax means much for many in the Democratic party's liberal base.

They are keenly interested in the fine print in the tax-cut compromise President Obama reached with Republicans. They like refundable tax credits for children, tuition help and other items Republicans routinely reject. These liberal Democrats are not always articulate and are more practical than theoretical. Unlike liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans in Congress, they don't believe that compromise equals surrender. They belong to the working class, not the chattering class. They are more interested in recovery than revenge.

Revenge against rich Americans and their heirs and heiresses is an understandable emotion for liberal Democrats in Congress. Perhaps it was a form of post-election denial, acting as though Democrats had 70 Senate seats and a huge House majority. When Obama and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell announced a tax-cut deal, the House Democratic caucus roared dissent by voice vote. A few days later, House Democrats voted 139-112 for the compromise. The Senate vote was 81-19. This deal made itself because Congress is not good at a game of chicken. Democrats did not wish to raise taxes during a recession. Republicans, despite their Scrooge-and-Marley reputation, did not want to mark the Christmas season by denying an extension of unemployment benefits.

Republicans have made protecting the rich their priority since the second administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Millionaire idolatry was never more evident than in this Congress. Strengthen the military? Not until millionaires see their tax cut coming. A treaty to help avoid nuclear war? Not until millionaires can alert their counting houses. A bill to assist heroic 9-11 responders? Not until Uncle Sam's check clears.

When Eugene McCarthy served on the Senate Finance Committee in the 1960s, he explained the GOP's tax philosophy with a metaphor from his boyhood on a Minnesota farm: "Republicans believe in feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses."

Ronald Reagan knew how to package his tax cuts. Borrowing a phrase from Jack Kemp,
he called Democrats "the party of envy." In the cultural divide between the latte left and the lunchbucket left, the media-academic argument often dismisses the American dream as a corporate scheme. Democratic attempts to raise the estate tax often meet working-class resistance. Many a merchant thinks his shop will eventually be worth millions.

Working-class Democrats, including many who will benefit from 99 weeks of extended unemployment payments, are familiar with the Bible story about a man who "went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard." The workers agreed to a penny a day. He hired more as the day wore on, says St. Matthew's Book 20. At payment time the first-hired workers "murmured against the good man of the house, saying, 'These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.' But he answered one of them, and said, 'Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?... So the last shall be first, and the first last, for many are called but few are chosen." John F. Kennedy made tax cuts popular, saying "A rising tide lifts all boats." In 1962, he also said "Life is unfair." The two sentiments are not contradictory.

Numbers, rather than emotion, will matter in 2012, when Congress votes again on extending the tax cut. Democrats, for their own good, must focus on economic recovery. They need to shed the rhetoric of revenge and offer a simple math test. Can Republicans document how many jobs they have created by making millionaires richer? Has the upper-bracket tax cut lowered the deficit? The record of the Bush tax cuts in 2001 suggests Republicans will lose that argument.

On Meet the Press Sunday, Vice President Biden said "We will be able to make the case much more clearly that spending $700 billion over 10 years to extend tax cuts for people whose income averages well over a million dollars does not make sense." He endorsed the number pushed by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York to raise the taxable number from $250,000 to $1 million, a vividly clear line.

The working class, too busy to begrudge, is also skeptical of "soak-the-rich" schemes and other flavors of pie in the sky. Income inequality is a legitimate concern of the academic-activist left, but the remedy lies in economics, not polemics.

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