The clearest sign of desperation by John McCain was the campaign's decision last week to wave the bloody shirt of socialism. You would have to go back to the 1950s to find such charges leveled against a presidential candidate, and even then not directly by candidates of a major party.
But there was Gov. Sarah Palin calling Sen. Barack Obama's tax proposals “socialism,” an accusation obviously planted by the McCain campaign. Warm-up speakers for McCain's Missouri rallies over the weekend were using the same language, though McCain seems to be avoiding the charge himself.
Palin said it was socialism to allow the income taxes of wealthy Americans, those earning from $250,000 to billions each year to return to the modest pre-Bush ranges while slashing the taxes of everyone else, which is the essence of Obama's tax program. It would amount to redistributing wealth from the rich to the middle class.
That may be a definition of socialism taught in the five colleges that Palin attended to get her journalism degree but nowhere else. Well, maybe at Harding College in the old days of James D. Bales and George S. Benson.
The timing of the socialism charge was fascinating: right after President Bush announced that he was nationalizing U.S. banks by unilaterally taking shares in them for the government in exchange for injecting liquidity, a step that McCain and Palin endorsed. When a reporter asked Palin if that were not real socialism, Palin pertly explained that it wasn't socialism because it needed to be done.
No one asked her how her characterization of Obama's tax plan squared with her own tax program in Alaska, which is the source of her popularity in that welfare state. In collaboration with the Democratic legislature, she imposed high excess profits taxes on energy companies that provide nearly all Alaska's public funds and used part of the gusher in state revenues to give every Alaskan still another big government check.
The socialism charge was an abrupt change in tactics for McCain, who has been telling every crowd all year that Obama planned to raise their taxes. It was never true and in the face-to-face debates Obama demolished the argument by explaining that the vast majority of Americans, nearly all but the very wealthiest, would fare better under his plan than under McCain's.
Arguing that cutting taxes for the middle class but not the rich is socialism will give socialism a better name than it deserves. Republicans, though not Richard Nixon himself, were insinuating in 1968 that Vice President Hubert Humphrey's policies were socialistic. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered the charge in his 2004 speech to the Republican National Convention while embracing Nixon and George W. Bush.
“Compassion is not weakness,” Humphrey declared in the 1968 campaign, “and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.”
But let's say that Palin and McCain's surrogates are right and that cutting taxes for everyone but a wealthy few is socialism. How might Arkansans feel about the doctrine?
Here is how Obama's tax plan, the original one that did not include the latest tax give-aways he proposes to stimulate a moribund economy, would work in Arkansas:
The wealthiest Arkansans — some 15,000 tax filers who reported net incomes of more than $200,000 or $250,000 depending on whether they are single or joint filers — would see their income tax rates in 2011 returned to 2001 levels, as the Bush tax law already specifies. (The 15,000 is a rough guess because Bush's Treasury Department stopped breaking out income categories greater than $200,000 after critics used the figures to show the huge benefits given to a handful of people who earned millions a year.) The other 1,170,000 Arkansas tax filers, if they owe taxes, would get a tax cut under Obama's plan.
McCain's plan, like Obama's, would continue the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for middle-income taxpayers but he would also include the richest and he would grant new tax breaks for big corporations. Obama's tax cuts would be deeper than McCain's for middle-to-low brackets. McCain also wants to carve the tax rate on investment income down to 7.5 percent, which over time would amount to a huge transfer of wealth from workers.
When the Bush tax cuts were passed, McCain condemned them as give-aways to people who didn't need them and a recipe for massive deficits.
The ironies of the McCain campaign do not stop there. McCain last week was still comparing himself to Theodore Roosevelt — “I'm a Teddy Roosevelt Republican” — and Palin embraced the slogan. She was being called “Teddy Roosevelt with a skirt.” After all, Roosevelt was a young maverick governor — two years younger than Palin when he became vice president — who battled entrenched power.
Could they know anything about the man they so fervently embrace?
“I am in every fiber of my body a radical,” Roosevelt thundered.
And this, the essential TR: “The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective — a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”