Barack the Redistributor!

Today in Cleveland, John McCain made an interesting comment: “That’s what change means for the Obama administration. They’re redistributing. It means taking your money and giving it to someone else.”

This is interesting for two reasons.

I hesitate to say that McCain isn't telling the truth, because it depends on whom McCain means by "you" (as in, "your money") and who he means by "someone else." If by "you" he means the 2 percent of Americans who make more than $250,000 year, then he's absolutely correct. Sorry, quarter-millionaires: Obama plans to raise "your" marginal income tax rate by 3 percent to its pre-George W. Bush level and thereby "take" more of "your money." But if by "you" McCain means the other 98 percent of America, he's incorrect. If "you" make less than $200,000 a year, Obama actually plans to take less of "your money" than Bush--and less, in many cases, than McCain. People who make under $250,000 a year have every right to be offended by this if they want to be. Maybe they plan to make $250,000 sometime soon; maybe they just believe in trickle-down economics. But they shouldn't think that Obama wants to take their money and give it to someone else--and they shouldn't be told that he does. He actually just wants to give them more money.

Which brings us to the second point of interest. Conservatives are eagerly pushing the charge--online, at rallies and in my inbox--that "Barack the Redistributor" is a secret communist, Marxist or socialist. (Today, the right is misreading as evidence of his pinko ways a 2001 interview in which Obama complains that progressive activists once wrongly wanted the Supreme Court to "ente[r] into the issues of redistribution of wealth.") Now, I understand the appeal of this line of attack, which provides voters with a familiar, 20th-century bogeyman to fear. But characterizing Obama's plan to tax the nation's top earners at 39 percent instead of 36 percent as socialist is absurd. Dwight Eisenhower taxed top earners at 91 percent. Richard Nixon taxed them at more than 50 percent. Even Ronald Reagan didn't lower the top marginal rate to less than 50 percent until the last two years of his second term. Were these Republicans secret socialists, too?

The answer, of course, is no. As the New Republic's Jonathan Chait points out, "literally having any government at all involves taking somebody's money and giving it to somebody else? Even the more restrictive definition of redistribution--using government to create a less unequal distribution of wealth--has been going on for a century. If McCain is really opposed to redistribution, then that means he thinks the rich should get back a dollar in spending for every dollar they pay in taxes." For the record, he doesn't; his proposed income-tax structure is still progressive in nature, meaning that it taxes the affluent at a higher rate than the less affluent. And McCain still plans to channel tax dollars into government programs--Social Security, Medicare, etc.--that disproportionately benefit people who pay lower taxes. Again, you may prefer McCain's plan to "redistribute" the wealth to Obama's. By all means. But not because one is socialist and the other isn't.

Deep down, I suspect McCain knows that Obama isn't really a socialist. Why? Because he once sounded a lot like his rival on taxes. During the 2000 campaign, for example, a young woman asked McCain why her father, a doctor, should be “penalized” by being “in a huge tax bracket.” McCain replied that “wealthy people can afford more” and that “the very wealthy, because they can afford tax lawyers and all kinds of loopholes, really don’t pay nearly as much as you think they do.”  "Look, here's what I really believe," he added. "That when you are--when you reach a certain level of comfort, there's nothing wrong with paying somewhat more." He soon backed up his words with action. After Bush was elected, McCain told Congress that he was disappointed by the president's plan to "cut the top tax rate of 39.6 percent to 36 percent." When it came time for a vote, the Arizonan stood on the Senate floor and announced that "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief." Unless McCain was a socialist in 2000 and 2001, Obama isn't a socialist now.

Ultimately, McCain has every right to talk about taxes in the closing days of the campaign. Voters deserve a serious debate on the issue. But right now, he's treating us as if we're too dumb to understand the difference between socialism and a competing vision of the top marginal tax rate. That's not just interesting. It's disappointing.