People like spreading the wealth

PEOPLE LIKE SPREADING THE WEALTH…. The past couple of weeks, the McCain campaign has made some rather odd assumptions about Americans’ perceptions of wealth. Ever since Barack Obama mentioned in passing that everyone benefits when we “spread the wealth around,” the McCain campaign has operated under the assumption that this is so scandalous, it’s worth betting a presidential campaign on.

This week, for example, McCain and Palin began calling Obama “Barack the Wealth Spreader” and the “Redistributor in Chief.”

The problem for the Republican campaign, though, is that Americans — who’ve seen their real wages decline over the last decade and who haven’t benefited at all from Bush’s tax breaks for the wealthy — actually like the idea of spreading the wealth around.

Gallup has been asking Americans periodically for over 20 years whether the distribution of money and wealth in this country is “fair,” or whether they should be “more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people.” (The question wording does not include a reference to exactly how they would be more evenly distributed and does not mention the government.)

Across the nine times the question has been asked, a majority of Americans have agreed with the thought that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed.

The latest poll, published yesterday, showed 58% agreed that “money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people.” The number is slightly higher than it was when Bush took office, but lower that it was a couple of years ago. (Among independents, it’s nearly two to one — 60% want more even distribution, while 34% believe the current distribution is fair.)

Now, Greg Sargent make a good point, arguing that McCain/Palin aren’t exactly engaging in a serious discussion about economic policy: “Just as with the Ayers attack, this particular assault is really about suggesting that Obama harbors secret and vague radical schemes…. It’s just more of the ‘risky unknown’ stuff.”

That’s true. In fact, I’d go a little further and argue that when McCain tells audiences that Obama’s plan for a middle-class tax cut is “welfare,” intended to “take your money and give it to someone else,” there’s also a racial component.

But as the Gallup data shows, the campaign also seems to believe that simply whining about “spreading the wealth” is supposed to be some kind of electoral cudgel, when in fact, most Americans aren’t offended by the idea at all.

As Atrios noted the other day, “It takes a long time to build up words and phrases which have commonly understood meanings and appropriate negative connotations. You can’t just make them up 2 weeks before an election. Most voters are going to hear ‘wealth spreader’ and think … sounds good to me! Spread some all over me, please.”

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.