Ross asks a good question (emphasis mine):
For a week or so now, I’ve been listening to smart conservatives suggest that Obama’s “spreading the wealth” remark might really, really hurt him – “talk about playing into the most extreme stereotype of your party, that it is infested with socialists,” writes James Pethokoukis – and I have a question: Hasn’t Obama been promising to spread the wealth throughout the entire race – a race he seems to be winning at the moment? His signal domestic-policy proposals are 1) a series of tax cuts and tax credits aimed at Americans making less than $250,000 a year and 2) a big-ticket health care reform aimed at expanding coverage; both of these plans, he promises, can be paid for with tax hikes on the richest 5 percent of Americans. This agenda isn’t a big socialist secret; it’s more or less the basis of his campaign. I suppose it’s possible that the “spreading the wealth” turn of phrase throws the redistributionist aspect of Obama’s agenda into relief in a way his campaign promises haven’t. But it seems to me like a generic restatement of a message that’s central to the Democratic campaign: Namely, that the rich haven’t paid their fair share under Republican rule, and that people making over $250,000 a year should pay more in taxes so that most Americans can pay less, to the IRS and in health-insurance premiums.
Me: I think Ross is right that if you’ve really been paying attention and you understand what Obama’s been getting at, you probably already knew that Obama is a wealth-spreader. His explanation that high taxes amount to mere good neighborliness, his desire to raise the capital gains tax out of fairness alone, even his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention made all of this very clear.
But then I part ways with Ross. First, lots of people haven’t been paying attention, despite all of the hooplah about high levels of interest and all that. It’s amazing (or depressing or reassuring, depending on your point of view) how many people only tune in at the end. Second, even for many voters who are engaged in the election, they may not have connected these dots. Obama often sounds like he’s cautious, pragmatic and technocratic. When they hear him explain his plans (as bogus as plan worship is) it all sounds very non-ideological, very Bloombergian, when in fact it’s all window dressing for a deeply ideological worldview. This is a center-right country, albeit with a unseemly fetish for “post-partisan” technocracy. Shattering, or at least cracking, the perception of Obama as a middle of the road pragmatist is very worthwhile. That’s why I think the McCain campaign’s decision not to frontally rebut Obama’s 95% tax cut promise has been so problematic. Yes, I think McCain should have promised more middle class tax relief himself. But he should also have pointed out that Obama’s “tax cuts” amount in no small part to pure wealth redistribution.
Ross thinks the Joe the Plumber incident helped McCain because, well, because “it hearkened back to campaigns of yore, when the GOP was promising lower taxes for guys like Joe Wurzelbacher and the Dems were promising higher taxes. That’s the Reagan-era archetype that McCain is trying to tap into by flogging the Wurzelbacher story, and it’s a powerful one.” He then goes on to express deep skepticism that this is much of a big deal or that voters have really learned anything new.
I think Ross is confusing an analytical point with a political one. Or maybe I’m confusing his analytical point for a political one. Either way, yes, sure, Reagan made those kind of arguments, but I very much doubt anything like Reagan nostalgia or yearning for campaigns of yore is at work here. I think a great number of people have had an itch in the back of their head when they’ve heard Obama talk about economics, but McCain has been unable or unwilling to scratch it until this Joe the Plumber business. You don’t arouse the kind of passion that this has stirred up — even discounting the understandable backlash against the media — unless you’ve created an “aha” moment for lots of people. Of course I doubt that this “spread the wealth” thing is a silver bullet, but it does finally give a candidate whose been bad at talking about the economy a way to talk about the economy.