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.
Imagine that instead of telling Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher that "when you spread the wealth around it's good for everybody," Barack Obama had said the following:
We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. … 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 … a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
The New York Post'sPage One would blare: "OBAMA: I'LL SEIZE 'SWOLLEN FORTUNES'!" Bill Kristol would demand to know, in his New York Times column, what godly powers enabled Obama to discern precisely whose wealth—David Geffen's? George Soros'?—would "benefit the community." On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly would start to say something, then sputter, turn purple, and keel over backward in a grand mal seizure.
John McCain, meanwhile, would have to stop saying that Teddy Roosevelt is his hero, because the passage quoted above is from T.R.'s "New Nationalism" speech of 1910. Either that, or McCain would have to quit calling Barack Obama a socialist.
T.R. justified progressive taxation straightforwardly as a matter of equality. In his 1907 State of the Union address, Roosevelt said:
Our aim is to recognize what Lincoln pointed out: The fact that there are some respects in which men are obviously not equal; but also to insist that there should be an equality of self-respect and of mutual respect, an equality of rights before the law, and at least an approximate equality in the conditions under which each man obtains the chance to show the stuff that is in him when compared to his fellows [italics mine].
Obama is constrained by a very different political climate to justify his sole proposed tax hike—on incomes above $250,000—by stating its benefit to commerce. Here's his "spread the wealth around" comment in context (for a more complete transcription, click here):
I do believe that for folks like me, who have worked hard but, frankly, have also been lucky, I don't mind paying just a little bit more than the waitress who I just met over there who, things are slow, and she can barely make the rent. My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's going to be good for everybody. If you've got a plumbing business, you're going to be better off if you've got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you. And right now, everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody. And I think when you spread the wealth around it's good for everybody.
In a radio address on Oct. 18, McCain said that to the "straight-talking," "plainspoken" Wurzelbacher, words like "spread the wealth around"
sounded a lot like socialism. And a lot of Americans are thinking along those same lines. … At least in Europe, the Socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are up front about their objectives. They use real numbers and honest language. And we should demand equal candor from Senator Obama.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Theodore Roosevelt by National Archive/Newsmakers.