Sometimes, when a political campaign has run out of ideas and senses that the prize is slipping through its fingers, it rolls up a sleeve and plunges an arm, shoulder deep, right down to the bottom of the barrel. The problem for John McCain, Sarah Palin, and the Republican Party is that the bottom was scraped clean long before it dropped out. Back when the polls were nip and tuck and the leaves had not yet begun to turn, Barack Obama had already been accused of betraying the troops, wanting to teach kindergartners all about sex, favoring infanticide, and being a friend of terrorists and terrorism. What was left? The anticlimactic answer came as the long Presidential march of 2008 staggered toward its final week: Senator Obama is a socialist.
"This campaign in the next couple of weeks is about one thing," Todd Akin, a Republican congressman from Missouri, told a McCain rally outside St. Louis. "It's a referendum on socialism." "With all due respect," Senator George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, said, "the man is a socialist." At an airport rally in Roswell, New Mexico, a well-known landing spot for space aliens, Governor Palin warned against Obama's tax proposals. "Friends," she said, "now is no time to experiment with socialism." And McCain, discussing those proposals, agreed that they sounded "a lot like socialism." There hasn't been so much talk of socialism in an American election since 1920, when Eugene Victor Debs, candidate of the Socialist Party, made his fifth run for President from a cell in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he was serving a ten-year sentence for opposing the First World War. (Debs got a million votes and was freed the following year by the new Republican President, Warren G. Harding, who immediately invited him to the White House for a friendly visit.)
As a buzzword, "socialism" had mostly good connotations in most of the world for most of the twentieth century. That's why the Nazis called themselves national socialists. That's why the Bolsheviks called their regime the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, obliging the socialist and social democratic parties of Europe (and America, for what it was worth) to make rescuing the "good name" of socialism one of their central missions. Socialists—one thinks of men like George Orwell, Willy Brandt, and Aneurin Bevan—were among Communism's most passionate and effective enemies.
The United States is a special case. There is a whole shelf of books on the question of why socialism never became a real mass movement here. For decades, the word served mainly as a cudgel with which conservative Republicans beat liberal Democrats about the head. When Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan accused John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson of socialism for advocating guaranteed health care for the aged and the poor, the implication was that Medicare and Medicaid would presage a Soviet America. Now that Communism has been defunct for nearly twenty years, though, the cry of socialism no longer packs its old punch. "At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives," McCain said the other day—thereby suggesting that the dystopia he abhors is not some North Korean-style totalitarian ant heap but, rather, the gentle social democracies across the Atlantic, where, in return for higher taxes and without any diminution of civil liberty, people buy themselves excellent public education, anxiety-free health care, and decent public transportation.
The Republican argument of the moment seems to be that the difference between capitalism and socialism corresponds to the difference between a top marginal income-tax rate of 35 per cent and a top marginal income-tax rate of 39.6 per cent. The latter is what it would be under Obama's proposal, what it was under President Clinton, and, for that matter, what it will be after 2010 if President Bush's tax cuts expire on schedule. Obama would use some of the added revenue to give a break to pretty much everybody who nets less than a quarter of a million dollars a year. The total tax burden on the private economy would be somewhat lighter than it is now—a bit of elementary Keynesianism that renders doubly untrue the Republican claim that Obama "will raise your taxes."
On October 12th, in conversation with a voter forever to be known as Joe the Plumber, Obama gave one of his fullest summaries of his tax plan. After explaining how Joe could benefit from it, whether or not he achieves his dream of owning his own plumbing business, Obama added casually, "I think that when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." McCain and Palin have been quoting this remark ever since, offering it as prima-facie evidence of Obama's unsuitability for office. Of course, all taxes are redistributive, in that they redistribute private resources for public purposes. But the federal income tax is (downwardly) redistributive as a matter of principle: however slightly, it softens the inequalities that are inevitable in a market economy, and it reflects the belief that the wealthy have a proportionately greater stake in the material aspects of the social order and, therefore, should give that order proportionately more material support. McCain himself probably shares this belief, and there was a time when he was willing to say so. During the 2000 campaign, on MSNBC's "Hardball," a young woman asked him why her father, a doctor, should be "penalized" by being "in a huge tax bracket." McCain replied that "wealthy people can afford more" and that "the very wealthy, because they can afford tax lawyers and all kinds of loopholes, really don't pay nearly as much as you think they do." The exchange continued:
YOUNG WOMAN: Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism and stuff?. . .
MCCAIN: Here's what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, there's nothing wrong with paying somewhat more.
For her part, Sarah Palin, who has lately taken to calling Obama "Barack the Wealth Spreader," seems to be something of a suspect character herself. She is, at the very least, a fellow-traveller of what might be called socialism with an Alaskan face. The state that she governs has no income or sales tax. Instead, it imposes huge levies on the oil companies that lease its oil fields. The proceeds finance the government's activities and enable it to issue a four-figure annual check to every man, woman, and child in the state. One of the reasons Palin has been a popular governor is that she added an extra twelve hundred dollars to this year's check, bringing the per-person total to $3,269. A few weeks before she was nominated for Vice-President, she told a visiting journalist—Philip Gourevitch, of this magazine—that "we're set up, unlike other states in the union, where it's collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs." Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it ("collectively," no less), but finding it would require the analytic skills of Karl the Marxist.