Two days before he lost the election, John McCain summarized what had become the central message of his campaign: “Redistribute the wealth, spread the wealth around — we can’t do that, my friends.
The last weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign turned the election into something of a referendum on “spreading the wealth.” Now, with an Obama administration on the near horizon, it remains to be seen whether media coverage will continue to explore the subject.
In view of the election results, it’s important that journalists and the public not forget how the “spreading the wealth” issue unfolded.
“My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody,” Barack Obama said on Oct. 12 in a conversation with an Ohioan named Joe. The candidate quickly added: “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.
McCain eagerly attacked the concept, most dramatically three days later during the last debate. While instantly creating the Joe the Plumber everyman myth, McCain sharpened the distinctions between the two tickets while the nation watched and listened. He charged: “The whole premise behind Senator Obama’s plans are class warfare, let’s spread the wealth around.
Obama routinely reframed the issue in terms of fairness. And he zeroed in on outsized corporate profits. During the debate, without repeating the controversial phrase, he in effect stood his ground in favor of the concept of spreading the wealth. “Exxon Mobil, which made $12 billion, record profits, over the last several quarters,” he replied, “they can afford to pay a little more so that ordinary families who are hurting out there — they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to afford food, how they’re going to save for their kids’ college education, they need a break.
Such arguments were repeated endlessly all fall by the candidates and their surrogates. Directly and indirectly, cable television and TV commercials engaged in a spinning free-forall on the wisdom of government efforts to reduce economic inequities. Now, President-elect Obama may have the wind at his back in the journey to reduce the economic injustice in our country.
Frequently, the conventional media wisdom — largely in sync with Republican talking points — is that Americans reject anything that smacks of “class warfare.” But the economic crisis and the greatly expanded appeal of populist rhetoric have pushed the subject into new political realms.
As much as anything else, the election became a dispute over the desirability of “spreading the wealth.” McCain and Sarah Palin fervently denounced the idea that government policies should reduce the huge economic gaps between the rich and everyone else.
From the top of the GOP ticket, the battle cry was a recycled attack on the principles of the New Deal. Like Franklin Roosevelt when he first ran for president in 1932, Obama put forward economic prescriptions that were hardly radical. In the next few years, an Obama presidency could accomplish great things — reminiscent of the New Deal, with its safety-net guarantees and its mammoth commitment to public works programs that created jobs. Today, we need green jobs that cure our economy and heal our environment.
Vote totals were still coming in last Tuesday when several pundits and GOP spinners on the cable networks somberly warned the president-elect to govern from “the center.” Presumably, such governance would preclude “spreading the wealth.” But before the conventional media wisdom has a chance to harden like political cement, we should be engaged in fresh national discussions of economic options for moving toward a more egalitarian society.
Norman Solomon is author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” The book has been adapted into a documentary film of the same name.
©2008 Creators Syndicate, Inc.