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At the End, a Clash of Substance

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Posted on Oct 31, 2008

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

    SHIPPENSBURG, Pa.—Emily Daywalt decided to go to the first political rally of her life because she wanted to cheer Sarah Palin, who was here a few days ago to inspire the faithful. Daywalt said she likes it that Palin “hunts and that she believes in God and that she is a strong, independent woman.”

    But ask the 19-year-old from South Mountain, Pa., why she is voting against Barack Obama, and she hones right in on John McCain’s closing argument. Obama, Daywalt said, “wants to spread the wealth,” which she interprets as meaning that he’d “give it to people who don’t do anything.”

    For all of the McCain campaign’s relentless use of guilt-by-association techniques right to the end, the 2008 campaign is concluding on a remarkably substantive argument. It is a debate about what constitutes social fairness and whether a top-down or a bottom-up approach to economic growth will define the country’s future.

    Obama is often described as cautious, but he has been bold and unrelenting in his criticisms of trickle-down economics and tax cuts concentrated on the wealthy. He used Thursday’s negative numbers on economic growth to press his case against theories that conservatives have been touting for decades. 

    “The decline in our GDP didn’t happen by accident,” Obama said. “It is a direct result of the Bush administration’s trickle-down, Wall Street-first, Main Street-last policies that John McCain has embraced for the last eight years.”


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    Yes, economic populism is thriving right now, and if Obama wins, his election would not simply be a nonideological verdict against the status quo. It would be a clear repudiation of conservative economic ideas and of McCain’s claim that a more-egalitarian approach to growth constitutes “socialism.” McCain’s attacks on Obama’s thinking have been so forceful and direct that they require this election to be seen as a referendum that will settle a long-running philosophical argument.

    Obama has presented McCain with a problem. By endorsing tax cuts for Americans earning less than $200,000 a year—i.e., the vast majority of taxpayers—Obama has complicated the typical Republican claim that Democrats always support raising taxes.

    Obama is candid in saying that he thinks the wealthy should pay more so that most Americans can pay less. He also thinks the government can help vulnerable members of the middle class and the poor secure health care and go to college.

    This has complicated McCain’s effort to root his argument on taxes in middle-class self-interest, since Obama already has that covered. So McCain has actually had to defend giving large tax benefits to the wealthy and to business, and engage in a wholesale argument against any sort of redistribution.

    McCain regularly charges that Obama wants to be the “redistributor in chief.” Speaking at the rally here at Shippensburg University, Palin was forced to say this about Obama’s support for a variety of tax credits aimed at helping the poor and middle class: “He says that he is for a tax credit, which is when government takes your money in order to give it away to someone else.”

    That is, of course, a mighty peculiar definition of tax credits. It is also an odd argument from a ticket that itself is committed to a research-and-development tax credit for corporations.

    It’s true that Obama favors “refundable” tax credits to help low-income workers, including some who may pay no income taxes but do pay many other taxes. McCain has argued that Obama’s refundable tax credits amount to “welfare.” That, too, is a strange claim, since McCain favors refundable credits as part of his health plan. But the whole idea is to persuade voters such as Emily Daywalt that Obama really is just out to help those “who don’t do anything.”

    And that is why Obama’s 30-minute advertisement on Wednesday night was targeted directly to voters such as Daywalt, or at least to those like her who are still persuadable. It was Obama’s tribute to the country’s working people who seek nothing more than decent incomes, health care and a chance to see their children succeed. It was less a political ad than a documentary about the value of work and the responsibilities of family life.

    For years, Republicans have argued that the way to help struggling working people is to give more money to the wealthy. Obama is saying that we should cut out the middleman and help working people directly. My hunch is that Obama’s argument will prevail, and that conservatives will then work overtime to try to deny the judgment the people have rendered.
    E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)
    © 2008, Washington Post Writers Group


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By DHFabian, November 28, 2008 at 11:22 pm Link to this comment

In spite of criticizing “trickle-down economics”, this phrase accurately describes Obama’s poverty agenda.
Obama doesn’t acknowledge that not everyone can work, and there aren’t jobs for all who can. His discussion ends at the comparatively-fortunate “middle class”. Promises to “create family supporting jobs” (which we have heard every election season since 1980)do nothing for people who desperately need help today.

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By MAR, November 3, 2008 at 10:22 am Link to this comment

Yup we’re in the same ballpark, although I play centre field

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By KDelphi, November 3, 2008 at 9:14 am Link to this comment

The “death tax” was the invention of Frank Luntz ( the “non-partisan” guy who wrote “Words that Work” and works for FOX—a-hole!)and Rove. Our best revenge is to lock Rove up (And Bush, and Rummy et al). I say we call Inheritance Tax” teh “Paris Hilton/Donald Trump tax”)

Enough uninformed middle class people believed them so, we lost the enormous amount of needed revenue from gazzilionaires who made their money off of teh back of the poor and working classes.

He also came up with “Clear Skies” (vs,Clean Air Act), “partial birth abortion” (it is not a medical term), “Right to Work” (Union busters), and all sorts of emcumbancy protection acts.

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By Tony Wicher, November 2, 2008 at 10:36 pm Link to this comment

By MostlyHarmless, October 31 at 11:56 pm #

I happen to know more rich people than most. Here’s what I see: they didn’t earn their money.

Anyone else notice that, or did I just run with an unusual crowd of rich people?
Remember that ad from back in the 80’s with the slogan “Smith-Barney: they make money the old fashioned way - they EARN it”. Well, the truth about most rich people is: “They make money the old-fashioned way - they INHERIT it!” Which is why we need to re-institute the inheritance tax, bigtime!

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By KDelphi, November 2, 2008 at 12:00 am Link to this comment

MAR—I know you were not addressing me, but, I would have to say I think that that is a pretty accurate analysis of the situation in the uS. The UK—, I suspect you are right—but have never been there. (damn those old Eurail passes!)

There is one thing that alot of people like to avoid. That is that, among the privileged classes of both parties of the duopoly, there is an “air of Aristocracy”. It truly amazes me that most Americans will defend the “meritocracy” to their last breath, even when there is vast evidence to teh contrary..

The US just “invents” its aristocracy. One night I heard Matthews, on MSNBC, speak of Pres. Sarkozy—he said that Sarkozy was upset because reporter had taken a pic of him on a boat (yaght) with Dubya,in a bathing suit! Matthews says, “Well, we shoudl let Sarkozy know that, here we dont treat our politicians like royalty!” You tell ‘em Chris! The president of France is on a yaght with the president of the uS, who inherited all of his wealth, and they are yaghting on Martha’s Vineyard! We really showed them!! Amazing…

The I have spent alot of my life “getting an education”, but, there is way too much emphasis on “what type” of education. It seems that, unless you went to an Ivy League, anymore, you dont measure up. Hell, about a third of our Conbgress are Ivy League educated attornies, some are PhDs and MDs, and a few are teachers.

I know that it is popular to emphasize intellect and long term education , especially after Dubya ( no doubt! But Bush did go to Yale!). The problem I have with it is the Horatio Alger idea you mentioned—the idea that this is a meritocracy and if anyone so wished , they , too could be exactly where all these rich and/or powerful people are.

In truth, alot more of it depends on luck, family, environment, and skills one is born with. But if people honestly think that everyone has an equal shake in the uS—then, there is really no reason to help anyone out on anything, is there? They are “just too lazy” to do what these other people did and it is “their own damn fault”.

Of course, I do not believe that at all.Of course there is no “perfect world”, but, a Social Democracy would serve the uS much better , and with more equality, than the system we have now, which is rotting from the inside.

That is what I think.

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By MAR, November 1, 2008 at 8:37 pm Link to this comment

Cyrena: Try this on for size: The stance taken by privileged republicans is akin to that taken in feudal days and still exists in modern England. It was what the American Revolution was much about. To the feudal Normans the ordinary persons exist to enhance the lives of the privileged by their underpaid work and near slavery.  I believe the English privileged class (landed aristocracy and other landholders) began when William the Conqueror took everything from the Anglo-saxon landholders and freeholders, including their workers, and redistributed the wealth to the wealthy, making the poor even poorer. The foundation of Oxford and Cambridge to educate mainly the former Norman priveleged class emphasized the division by language, dress and manners. In modern England this class divixion still exists with 1066 at the root.

What the Republicans seem to want to do is the same - redistribute of wealth upward to the already powerful and wealthy. The real myth is the Horatio Alger story rewritten as any “hard working” (read hard-stealing)  young lad can make it by hard work and justifiable self-greed (justified because those who are admitted to the class division are entitled to the upward distribution.)

In most modern social democraciedsit is just the reverse. The rich and powerful are allowed to be such but not as much as in the US because they must contribute to downward (social services and progressive taxation) income redistribution and lateral distribution from richer jurisdictions to poorer jurisdictions. That is the Canadian model which the conservatives attack when they are in power. However, some provisions such as health care are so rooted now as to deter changes. They get away with it by raising the redistribution to the middle class, still taking from the rich. Rich people don’t get rich because they work hard. Skill, the advantage of inheritance, wiles, greed and downright “legal” theft are the real reasons most millionaires are made and there needs to be a political balance to prevent what is hapening in the US. Both Demos and Reps are right-of-centre. You need the ghost of Elenor Roosevelt to keep the Demos honest

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By KDelphi, November 1, 2008 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment

MostlyHarmless—I agree. I did not grow up in a “rich” family (middle class I would say—but, no more! Thanks to health care costs! Nobody in my family makes enough to take “tax breaks” either), but, my idiot uncle was a millionaire, and filed for bankruptcy many times , only to “scheme ” it back. My father would not allow me to know him very well,  growing up,(My dad stil believed in the meritocracy, which has disappeared) and it turned out be a good thing—except, we could sure use the money! Poor old rich baste*d…

They scheme, scam, steal, and , basically, have no conscience. But, the people in the uS fall for the “socialism scam ” all the time.Most people deserve to be comfortable . They work hard. But, the people who work the hardest are often re-imbursed the least.Think of who you know that works the hardest—and you can see what i mean.

The “meritocracy” is a scam. Anyone who thinks that the rich are there because they “worked hard” are simply uninformed. Or very rich.

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By MostlyHarmless, November 1, 2008 at 12:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I happen to know more rich people than most. Here’s what I see: they didn’t earn their money.

Most of them were given it—by their Daddies, their sugar-daddies, or their wives’ daddies. Most of them work hard, sometimes as hard as a poor person, but their work is leveraged on the wealth they were given.

Anyone else notice that, or did I just run with an unusual crowd of rich people?

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By KDelphi, October 31, 2008 at 4:28 pm Link to this comment

I have to admit—-watching neo-cons squirm is just TOO much fun!!

I guess it remains to be seen how much they really have to worry about.

But, it is great to see Dubya go…...

Head to Bermuda, you rich f-ers!

It is also obvious that the MAIN thing these people fear Obama for is MONEY—their fricking tax cuts. And, that is all they care about.

This does not include the woman referred to above, who is just too ignorant to know her rear from a hole inthe ground.

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By cyrena, October 31, 2008 at 3:34 pm Link to this comment

By LJ in MD, October 31 at 10:10 am

•  And, as I look at my own generation, there are far too many intellectually-incurious, credulous, flock-following, change-hating, “other”-fearful sycophants. I have a feeling our current generation of students are being selected for just these qualities.

Please convince me I am wrong.

LJ in MD,

You aren’t entirely wrong, but like everything else, there are exceptions. I understand what you mean about coming to age in an era that was pretty much encouraging of independent thought, and the level of freedom, since my own experience has been the same.

But, I’ve also learned that it very much depends on WHERE and WHEN that happens as an individual or even a generational experience. Where I am now, the same academic mindset is still in place, just as it was here back in the 70’s when I was in the same place. It’s just that this is not a mentality that is nationally perpetrated. Having left California, and then returned to what is my home, after many years living in other locations, I find the political mindset to STILL be this defective (as the young woman in the essay) in many places, because that’s what is passed on in many communities where people spend their entire lives. And, this can happen just as dangerously in highly populated areas as it does in less populated or more isolated areas, though typically, there are some ideological differences between rural and urban demographics. I think we’re finally beginning to break through that, primarily due to the technology available to us now. But, it takes a long time. 

So hopefully I can convince you that you’re wrong IN PART, just because there are many places where the freedoms of independent thinking are still being practiced, and because the Obama campaign has organized that new energy, even though it may not be as visible to some as to others.

For people like this, it could just take a while longer. But slowly, the progress/process is taking place, and that’s something to be grateful for. As recently as 4 years ago, I was still really pulling my hair out, because nobody was talking about anything remotely connected to reality.

I missed Obama’s information special on Wednesday, so I’m glad that EJ did such an excellent job with this piece, and the explanation for those others who still might not ‘get it’ after decades of Rethuglican brainwashing.

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By Grousefeather, October 31, 2008 at 3:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

One of the latest republican claims I’ve noticed is one that says Obama wants to tax the most productive people at the top, thus crippling our economy, blah, blah, blah. Really?

I’m reminded of something my grandfather told me once “The source of all great wealth is either illegal, immoral, or unethical.”

That’s why corporations need a great big government boot square up it’s ass, and the bigger the boot, and the harder it kicks, the better!

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By Spiritgirl, October 31, 2008 at 2:29 pm Link to this comment

These are the very “Jerry Springer-esque” people that continue to vote for these incompetent idiots that have taken us down this fiasco road to begin with!  These are the people that just barely slid through the education system - they are incurious, believe what they are told, and the only mental stimulation that they require is which t.v. station to watch!  They may “care” about their families, but they have no curiosity about the nation at large or their larger obligation to community!

McShame and his “spread the wealth” lies,  the nerve, has he bothered to explain that his support of the current Executive and his redistribution of income to the wealthiest 1% of individuals, has created the greatest divide of income inequality since before the “Great Crash of the Depression”!  I think not.  Has he even come out with an economic agenda! Again light on details and any specific solutions!  His campaign has finally admitted that his health-care “plan” would force the average family that now has health insurance to pay taxes on their coverage!  If that isn’t “spreading the wealth to the rich” than what is?!?!?!

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By KDelphi, October 31, 2008 at 2:13 pm Link to this comment

I’m not a “commie” , but I am sick of so-called liberals who have a problem with them. There was ONCE (and still is in most “free” countries)
a strong Socialistic Party in the US.When are USAns going to get over “Cold War-itis”?

I am not sure how to convince people like this woman , that if they are afraid of “socialism”—neither one of these candidates should worry her in the least! Besides, she wil get $1000—it wil fix everything, just like last time. (Think what we could do with that money if it were pooled!)

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By LJ in MD, October 31, 2008 at 11:10 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

That 19 year old is what scares me about this country.
People my age (approaching middle age) greew up during the most progressive period in our country in terms of education and personal freedoms. Compared to students in today’s public schools, our teachers were allowed to be far more liberal in their leanings and we were given far more encouragement to be non-conformist - to think for ourselves.
And, as I look at my own generation, there are far too many intellectually-incurious, credulous, flock-following, change-hating, “other”-fearful sycophants. I have a feeling our current generation of students are being selected for just these qualities.
Please convince me I am wrong.
If I am not, the Sarah Palins of this world will continue to become idols and letting someone else tell you how to think will become the goal.

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By Hulk2008, October 31, 2008 at 10:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Unfortunately, it took Barack 30 minutes to explain that his tax plans are not a handout but a hand up.  Conversely, it takes only 3 words and 2 seconds to say “spread the wealth”. 
    Barack truly needs an equal and ofsetting Sound Bit (smaller than a Bite - so that it will fit into a neo-con head)  -  something that a taxpayer will remember all the way into and out of the ballot booth.
  Too bad the truth comes in larger packages than hate and lies do.

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By Purple Girl, October 31, 2008 at 6:24 am Link to this comment

And has always been.
It is the exact economic policy which sent many of our Ancestors to sail out of Europe and into the New World, risking everything inlcuding their live for a chance to get out of it’s strict caste system.
As soon as those word were utter out of that puppet Reagans Mouth- I recognized it.
What could be more an Antithesis to our founding?
Oh derailing the right to vote..which they have been doing in conjunction with and for this Economic Treason.
I see cars and Lawn signs in my area for McCain, and I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry…emmense fear (terror) often has that effect on people esp after decades of oppression and mind controlling techniques have tormented them.
“My Fellow prisoners” was not a mis speak it was a confession of Reality.
Someone get a stethoscope…. check to see if there is still a heart beat, touch the eye see if it blinks…Faint, Our Free market Democracy is nearly dead. Will Tuesday be another injection of poison, or will it be a shot of adrenaline just to get US moving again, but still only a heartbeat away from falling over….Or Will it be The Cure?
If the syringe holds the chemical called ‘McCain’, were Dead. If it contains ‘Obama’ it’s a 50/50 chance of rivial vs Cure. what will determine our survival will Ultimately depend on the Aftercare.

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD, October 31, 2008 at 4:52 am Link to this comment

I always wondered about the thinking of a regular-type person who watches as banks and corps. regularly benefit from taxpayer money, often to the tune of millions and billions in subsidies, aid, tax breaks or out and out bail-out (oops, I mean rescue,) yet bitches when an individual in need gets a few bucks to sustain him/herself with just the basics.

Often, the resentment toward the latter is much greater than toward the former. Maybe I’m missing something.

Maybe I’m really a commie.

Good column, I think, E.J.

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