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Mccain, Redistribution, And "welfare"

Ross Douthat scratches his head wondering why the McCain campaign is "pinning their hopes on a working-class backlash against the progressive income tax" in Pennsylvania. Ross thinks the answer is incompetence. Maybe he's right, and the McCain campaign is unaware of, say, polls showing that Americans favor Obama's tax hike on the rigch or years of evidence showing that Americans by overwhelming margins believe that wealth should be distributed more evenly.

But the more likely possibility seems to be that the McCain campaign is not monumentally stupid, and is trying to play on fears that Obama will take money from whites and give it to blacks. Hence McCain's claims that Obama plans on "taking from one group of Americans and giving to another," that Obama would turn the IRS into "a giant welfare agency," and his television ads repeatedly flashing the word "welfare" to describe Obama's plans.

Certainly, Pennsylvanians seem to see McCain's argument here as something other than an attack on the principle of progressivity in taxation. The Boston Globe reports:

Still, there remains a deep distrust of big government programs here, and strong skepticism about Obama. A number of voters feared he would transfer wealth from the middle class to help people "who don't work" or who don't deserve it. ...

McCain's focus on casting Obama as the wealth "redistributor in chief" is hard to miss around here these days. In coffee shops and convenience stores, Republican radio ads repeatedly warn that "congressional liberals" want to raise taxes and increase spending by $1 trillion. "They call it taxing the rich; we call it out of touch with our values," the narrator says.

Chris Borick, a political science professor and director of Muhlenberg College's Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, said his tracking polls for the Morning Call newspaper of Allentown suggest that so far, McCain's argument is not working - voters believe McCain would help the rich while Obama would help the middle class.

The concept of wealth redistribution is as unpopular here as it is in most of America, Borick said, and the notion may play on racist fears of black welfare recipients siphoning money from working-class whites - fears that have special resonance since Obama is black.

Note that both the Gallup poll I cited and Borick say that "wealth redistribution" is historically unpopular. That's exactly because the phrase plays on fears of taking money from the middle class and giving it to the poor, especially minorities. When the idea is phrased in terms of takign from the rich and giving to the middle class -- which happens to be exactly what Obama is proposing -- then it becomes extremely popular. McCain's line of attack here only makes sense as an attempt to misportray Obama's tax plan as redistribution from middle- and working-class whites. Again, maybe McCain is just doing something completely stupid, but that wouldn't be my bet.

McCain has been accused of playing upon racism many times where the accusation is a stretch. (Though conservatives are overly sensitive here, as what often happens is that one blogger or columnist makes an accusation that does not gain any broader traction among liberals or Democrats.) But this case seems pretty blatant, and in this instance, Ross's habit of taking Republican campaigns on topics like crime and welfare purely at face value is not serving him well.

--Jonathan Chait