McCain's Hero: More Socialist Than Obama!
McCain can call Obama a socialist or he can call Teddy Roosevelt his hero. He can't do both.
In an Oct. 22 speech in Manchester, N.H., McCain expostulated further:
Joe and guys like him will earn the wealth. Barack and politicians like him will spread it. Joe didn't really like that idea, and neither did a lot of other folks who believe that their earnings are their own. After all, before government can redistribute wealth, it has to confiscate wealth from those who earned it. And whatever the right word is for that way of thinking, the redistribution of wealth is the last thing America needs right now. In these tough economic times, we don't need government "spreading the wealth"—we need policies that create wealth and spread opportunity.
When T.R. spoke of "swollen fortunes" and "malefactors of great wealth," socialism was a genuine force in American politics, perceived by many to pose a serious threat to the social order. When T.R. first called for a "graduated income tax" in his 1907 State of the Union, he was proposing a measure that the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional. Indeed, the federal income tax struck down by the Court wasn't even "graduated," or progressive; it was a flat-rate tax. Today, McCain demagogically attacks Obama's purported "socialism" knowing that socialism is a dead letter in the United States. He feigns shock at progressive taxation ("confiscate wealth") nearly a century after the states ratified the 16th Amendment, enabling Congress to enact a progressive income tax, and nearly a decade after he himself scolded a town-hall questioner on MSNBC's Hardball who cried "socialism" about the rich having to pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes. "Here's what I really believe," McCain said. "When you are—reach a certain level of comfort, there's nothing wrong with paying somewhat more."
In his book The Great Tax Wars, Steven Weisman, formerly of the New York Times, writes that T.R.'s previous experience as police commissioner of New York City made him worry "about anarchy arising from gross economic inequality." Today, the income gap between the top 0.01 percent of families in the United States and the bottom 90 percent is greater than it was in T.R.'s day. The last time it was anywhere near so great was in 1929. The top marginal income-tax rate, meanwhile, is near its historic low in the late 1920s. Those of you seeking a cause to the current financial meltdown may draw your own conclusions. (For more on taxes and historic patterns of inequality in the United States, click here.)
T.R., of course, was no socialist. Indeed, his purpose was largely to prevent socialists from coming to power. But the trust buster got called a socialist a lot more often than Obama ever will. He writes in his autobiography:
Because of things I have done on behalf of justice to the workingman, I have often been called a Socialist. Usually I have not taken the trouble even to notice the epithet. … Moreover, I know that many American Socialists are high-minded and honorable citizens, who in reality are merely radical social reformers. They are opposed to the brutalities and industrial injustices which we see everywhere about us.
T.R. then goes on to outline his strong differences "with the Marxian Socialists" and their belief in class warfare and the inevitable demise of capitalism. Later, he returns to his earlier theme:
Many of the men who call themselves socialists today are in reality merely radical social reformers, with whom on many points good citizens can and ought to work in hearty general agreement, and whom in many practical matters of government good citizens can well afford to follow.
There were, however, limits to T.R.'s tolerance. "I have always maintained," he concluded, "that our worst revolutionaries today are those reactionaries who do not see and will not admit there is any need for change."
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Theodore Roosevelt by National Archive/Newsmakers.