Magazine article The New Yorker

Joe and Debbie

Magazine article The New Yorker

Joe and Debbie

Article excerpt

At a rally in Holland, Ohio, in the last days of the 2008 Presidential campaign, a plainspoken plumber's assistant named Joe Wurzelbacher buttonholed Barack Obama. He intended to buy a plumbing company, he said, that would earn about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year, and he asked if Obama was going to make people like him pay higher taxes. Obama's response, detailed and a little wonky, ended with a gift for John McCain: "When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." Wurzelbacher likely would have been eligible for the tax cut that Obama was proposing, but, three days later, during the final debate between the nominees, at Hofstra University, McCain kept pressing the question of who spoke for "my old buddy, Joe the Plumber." Wurzelbacher was an instant sensation, and in one TV appearance he described Obama's plan as "a very socialist view." Two weeks later, he joined McCain on the Straight Talk Express.

Last month, during the State of the Union address--delivered just hours after Mitt Romney had reluctantly released tax returns showing that he paid a rate of only 13.9 per cent on mostly unearned income of twenty-two million dollars--President Obama officially introduced the country to his own populist personification of Middle America: Debbie the Secretary. Seated in the First Lady's box, with her no-fuss haircut and friendly face, she provided just the right "optics" for the moment: the President had a new proposal for spreading the wealth. Debbie Bosanek, from Bellevue, Nebraska, pays a higher proportion of her income in taxes than her boss, Warren Buffet, the second-richest man in the country. (According to ABC News, his rate is 17.4 per cent; hers is double that, 35.8.) Obama said, "Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense."

Not the Republican candidates, who call it class warfare at every opportunity. Romney denies that any talk about the growing chasm between the super-rich and the rest might be motivated, even slightly, by a sense of fairness. "You know, I think it's about envy," he told Matt Lauer. "I think it's about class warfare." (Romney went on to concede that it might be O.K. "to talk about those things in quiet rooms"--just not in the open arenas of a political campaign.) Newt Gingrich said, at a campaign stop in Richmond, Virginia, that Obama has a "European radical attitude toward class warfare." Rick Santorum, responding to Obama's statement that "the middle class in America has really taken it on the chin," said that he would never, ever, stoop to using the word "class."

The vocabulary of class warfare may have begun on the left--a very socialist left--but in mainstream American politics it didn't gain much traction until the Republicans took it up. Framing the struggle as cultural and tribal rather than as economic, they proved to be more effective class warriors than the Democrats. Richard Nixon won over the "silent majority" by casting intellectuals, student radicals, and the media as enemies of those he awkwardly termed "the so-called unimportant people." Ronald Reagan called out "welfare queens" for bilking the government. The Bushes brought down their opponents by igniting incipient racial and cultural resentments. Michael Dukakis fell to the vicious Willie Horton ad. The infamous Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry impugned his war heroism; an ad showing him windsurfing off Nantucket became an emblem of unseemly privilege. …

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