The Haves vs. the Will-Haves

I have been thinking the past few weeks, as I’ve watched the Democrats attack President Bush’s tax-cut plan as deeply flawed because it benefits the rich and was developed in fact only to benefit the rich, more specifically to benefit rich Republicans and their big-business friends, that this is an odd and an old tic the Democrats display when discussing tax policy. They’ve been doing it all my life, since I first started noticing politics 30 years ago, and they did it well before then, and it’s interesting that they do not stop.

I am referring to this: Somehow the Democrats always want you to show your loyalty to the poor by hating the rich. It is as if they think resentment of the haves is prima facie proof of sympathy for and identification with the have-nots. And it is odd that they still do this, for a number of reasons including that so many Democrats are rich, or at least “rich.” (I can remember when the Democrats did not seem the rich man’s party, but by the 1970s at least anyone could see that wealthy city people were likely to be liberal Democrats and modest-living small-towners, suburbanites and blue-collar workers were more likely to be conservative and Republican.)

The Democrats have never gotten over class warfare as a political strategy and tactic. And as I say this is odd, in part because in America class warfare doesn’t really work. It makes the Democratic base happy to some degree, but it is not inclusive; it is by its nature exclusive. It seems driven by envy and resentment, which are negative emotions. And the envy and resentment seem inauthentic, cynical.

There is a good argument that class warfare doesn’t work, period, except in one way: It makes some Republicans defensive, and it makes some Republican leaders nervous and unsure.

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I know a little about this because I used to love making Republicans defensive. I loved looking down on the rich. Now I consider it creepy, knee-jerky and narrow to label people by how much they have or inherited, but once to my young mind it made sense.

I grew up in a working-class Democratic family, with a father who’d been a Brooklyn street urchin with no father himself and a mother who couldn’t take care of him, and he told me last summer, literally on his deathbed, that one of his fondest memories of boyhood was going down to the local government office and getting a Social Security card. He was 15 but big and lied about his age, and the card made him feel like he belonged to something, that he was a workingman in America, and here was his name and his number.

He always loved FDR and Eleanor and saw the Democratic Party as the party of the common man, and he thought Republicans were rich, snobby bums. His views filled the household air and were happily absorbed and shared by me and others in our family. By the sixties I was reading the great work of the newspaper poets of New York, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, and the writers of the Village Voice and the then-liberal New York Post, and they all hated the rich too.

When I was a teenager, I heard somehow of country clubs, and I gathered they were where rich Republicans went to be insensitive together. I thought of them as gray people—gray-haired, pallid, in gray jackets and slacks. My father once put down George Romney (a very gray man) as a guy who looked like a country-clubber.

A dozen or so years later I was in the Reagan White House, and I mentioned to Ben Elliott, my boss and the man who ran speechwriting, that I liked Reagan Democrats, blue-collar voters who’d left the party over busing and Vietnam and taxes, but I still couldn’t manage to like country-club Republicans. He asked what I meant and I told him, and we agreed it was the country-clubbers in the Reagan administration who never quite . . . understood things and always got in the way of good policy.

Ben later used the phrase “country-club Republicans” in a conversation with Bob Novak, who began to use it, and soon the phrase entered the lexicon. I think it came from my old man, and I think he would be pleased to know a whole class of people were now routinely insulted with his words. I hope Bob Novak reads this and can remember if the phrase might have bubbled up from his conversation with Ben.

But I digress.

The only rich people the antirich newspaper poets and neighborhood pundits back then liked were the Kennedys, whose wealth was considered glamorous because they glamorously helped the poor.

But they and others like them, it started to seem to me, and tens of millions of others, were “helping the poor” by creating government programs that were so big and costly (and ungainly, and ultimately unhelpful, and finally destructive) that the middle and lower-middle classes were being taxed to death to pay for them. And that didn’t seem to me compassionate. Or to the tens of millions of others who later voted for Ronald Reagan and then both Bushes.

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As the elegantly insightful pundit and historian Michael Barone has pointed out, politics in America doesn’t really split along economic lines. Slightly more than half of the wealthiest Americans voted for Bush; slightly more than half of the poorest Americans voted for Gore. But on cultural issues the splits can be huge. Jews vote for Democrats routinely in the 80% to 90% range, conservative Christians vote for Republicans at nearly as high a proportion.

I called Mr. Barone yesterday, and he noted that the closest America has come to successful class warfare was in the first half of the last century, when unions vs. business had some traction. But he notes that even in 1936, the first presidential election after FDR started Social Security and boosted progressive taxation, FDR carried the groups and areas that he had won over in 1934, before his programs had passed. They liked him, approved of his efforts and the vigorous orderliness he seemed to be bringing to a country in crisis. But for the most part, Mr. Barone observed, class warfare has not been effective.

Why then do the Democrats cling to it still? “Because some of them think it’s right, and some of them think it works,” Mr. Barone says. Class warfare was the theme of last year’s Democratic presidential campaign. “Gore was doing it—’The people vs. the powerful.’ Well, the people in Montana gave him 30% of their votes, the coal miners of West Virginia didn’t back him, the beneficiaries of federal dams” in the Northwest didn’t either.

Class warfare, says Mr. Barone, is at odds with Americans’ hopeful nature. “We don’t identify ourselves as permanently downtrodden; it is not the American experience that you’re kept down and can’t move up.” In America you can not only move up, but do so quickly. The divorced single mother of this year gets a job or remarries and suddenly she and her children are not the bottom line on anybody’s statistical readout anymore.

It is the fantastic fluidity and hopefulness of Americans, their enduring sense that in only one generation they can go from nothing to everything and nowhere to anywhere, that contributes to some surprising statistics on the death tax. Only 2% of Americans pay the levy, but in the polls 70% are consistently against it. Maybe this is because, as Steve Forbes used to say, they think it unfair that anyone should have to deal with the undertaker and the taxman in the same week. But it’s also probably a good bet that this majority opposes the death tax because they believe that some day they’ll have money, or their kids will, and they won’t want to pay it.

We all think we can make it. We all think we can work hard and succeed, or win the lottery, or our cousin’s new restaurant will be a big success and he’ll hire us as greeter or maitre d’. We all dream. The inheritance tax seems antidreamer because it seems anti-American dream. A lot of Americans think that when you bash the rich you’re bashing their future ZIP code.

The only ones class warfare really seems to work with is some Republican members of Congress. A number of them go into a defensive crouch whenever Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle and the networks do their thing.

It’s odd. They must be country-club Republicans, those guys.