I love me some Larison:
This is something that I didn’t elaborate on last night, but the idea that the message of Spread The Wealth would be a political loser at the present time is bizarre, which makes McCain’s insistence on identifying Obama as the “spread the wealth” candidate even more bizarre. I mean, does McCain want to get crushed in a landslide? Let’s think about this. There is an economic downturn coming on the heels of an era of wage stagnation and growing economic inequality, the financial sector has imploded thanks to the combined blunders of government and holders of concentrated wealth and Obama’s use of a phrase that on its own could easily be mistaken for an expression of neo-Harringtonian distributism is supposed to be politically radioactive? Consolidation of power, concentration of wealth and centralism all stand condemned for having created the present fiasco, and there is supposed to be a political downside to talking about distributing wealth?He goes on to wonder how conservatives forgot that the argument for free markets over welfare-state planning was precisely that it more equitably and unbiasedly distributed wealth in society, and especially throughout the broad middle class. Capitalism combined with limited constitutional government was defended as an antidote to aristocracy and oligarchy. I happen to believe that this argument, particularly in the American context, was profoundly ahistorical, but it had an internal logic and consistency, and although it was wrong, it could be made in basic good faith by its believers. Certainly Larison is right to point out that any conservative appeal to a middle class rests squarely on the ability to argue that a conservative economic program will prove more favorable to their economic fortunes than a program of liberal redistribution which (whether true or not) favors the poor and jobless over the hard-working, upright classes.
But like Larison says: when you live in a time of stagnating or declining real wages, and when the value of owned (or mortgaged property) is likewise in stagnation or decline; when actual inflation (as opposed to "core inflation") is on the rise due to a weak currency and high energy, food, and utility costs; when payrolls are contracting and unemployment increasing; when an implosion in the financial sector is beginning to reduce retirement savings and pinch the fortunes of the upper middle class (i.e. the educated, "professional classes" of doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, administrators, upper managers, etc.); then positioning yourself as the candidate who opposes "spreading the wealth" smells of remarkable incompetence.
It's another example of how McCain's infelicity precludes the dual-message communication that's been the modus operandi of his faction for decades. He wants to signal to his fervent base that this Obama character is a Marxist-communist along the "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" line while suggesting more mildly to the broad swath of non-ideological voters, the folks who don't actually pay much attention to politics in the off years, that he's gonna tax them out the wazoo and give their money to bad, poor people. Even in difficult economic times, there are ways to do that. McCain's just not fast enough on his feet. He's like a game of Telephone within a single mind; having heard something once, he repeats it to himself again and again, changing it slightly each time, until what emerges from his mouth in public is changed entirely.
Obama, meanwhile, is doing what it is that successful politicians do--namely, telling people what they want to hear. He is going to get us out of Iraq, get bin Laden, help the middle class, build an electric car, stop outsourcing, raise wages, help small business, blah blah blah. He says these things plainly and often, never straying far from his set-piece oratory. McCain's attempt to paint himself and his running mate as "mavericks" and "reformers" is dumb and doomed not because they're unconvincing in those roles, but because people do not actually care about "reform" or "getting rid of the old boys network." If they did, incumbency wouldn't be so reliable a predictor of victory in elections. Prompted with questions about "Washington" and "the way things are done" and "the tone of politics," people will of course respond that they find it all regrettable and that they disapprove. The idea that this constitutes motivational opinion is wrong, silly really. People care about their paychecks and their bills, and if you can successfully reassure them that the former will increase and the latter decline, then for the most part they'll go along with just about any other bullshit that comes out of your mouth.