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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Futility of “Redistribution” Attacks on Obama

Note: this item was originally published on October 28, 2008.
It’s been obvious for a while that attacks on Barack Obama for favoring “redistribution of wealth” and other “socialist” beliefs is the final gambit of the McCain-Palin campaign. They’re reached this essentially ridiculous position for a variety of reasons:
(1) It’s highly congenial to conservative “base” voters, who think virtually all Democrats are “socialists,” and who also view much of the New Deal/Great Society legacy as “socialist.”
(2) It’s also arguably persuasive to some swing voters, who may not like or trust either candidate, and are trying to figure out who represents the greatest risk.
(3) It intersects with the McCain campaign’s heavily tax-and-budget based approach to the economy, which it is intensifying in the absence of anything much to say about what he would do to deal with the actual economic crisis the country faces.
(4) It also intersects with the sleazier aspects of the McCain/GOP/conservative assault on Obama, aimed at painting him as a dangerous radical who “pals around with terrorists” and is secretly close to anti-American, black nationalist, and perhaps even Jihadist Islamic elements.
So anything Obama’s ever said and done that can be twisted into support for “redistribution of wealth” is being avidly promoted by the GOP. The latest example is a 2001 Chicago public radio intereview in which Obama the law professor discusses the reluctance of the judicial branch to engage in “redistributive” efforts.
This is really, really a reach, as Obama legal advisor Cass Sunstein explains at The New Republic. Obama was in fact articulating approvingly a conservative legal theory about the hamhanded nature of direct judicial intervention into social policies that don’t involve fundamental rights:

In answering a caller’s question, he said that the court “is just not very good at” redistribution. Obama added, with approval, that the Constitution “is generally a charter of negative liberties.”
Obama’s principal claim–about the institutional limits of the courts–was made by many conservatives (including Robert Bork) in the 1960s and 1970s: Courts should not attempt to guarantee “positive” rights, or interpret the Constitution to redistribute wealth. Obama is squarely rejecting the claim that was made by many liberal lawyers, professors, and judges at the time–and that is being made by some today.

So this latest attempt to show that Obama’s a “socialist” is almost completely bogus.
But facts aside, there are two other reasons these sort of attacks aren’t getting much traction.
First of all, most Americans generally understand that there are a variety of longstanding and very popular policies in this country that involve “redistribution of wealth” to some extent or other. Certainly Medicare and Medicaid aren’t “pay as you go” programs. Nor is public education. And the basic principle of progressive taxation is inherently redistributive.
Second of all, we are at a point in U.S. history when upper-income and corporate complaints about “redistribution” are going to fall on an awful lot of deaf ears, given the consequences of regressive conservative economic policies over the last eight years. As I noted in an earlier post about progressive taxation, a majority of Americans right now appear to actually support the use of the tax code to redistribute wealth from the rich to lower-and-middle class folk, which is what Obama is unfairly being accused of covertly supporting.
In general, the McCain-Palin campaign’s attack lines on “redistribution” and “socialism” are poorly timed, as were earlier efforts to brand Obama as an “extreme liberal.” This is one election cycle where given the choice between the economic policy status quo and a more liberal approach, “change” is the preferred option regardless of how it is mischaracterized with alarmist terms.

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