A Guide to the Class Warfare of Presidential Politics

Everyone says there’s a class war going on in the U.S. If so, it is, at least so far, a war of words.

It’s also a war in which a principal tactic is to accuse the other side of fighting a class war, while denying that you’re fighting one yourself. Meanwhile, everybody claims to be on the same side: the side of the people, against the aristocratic elitist snobs who … where did I park my tumbrel? In this war of words, certain words take on a special weight or meaning. Here are a few:

— Elitist. The verbal class war is like a game of pin-the- tail-on-the-donkey (or elephant, as the case may be). The goal is to pin the other side with the label of “elitist.” In my opinion — purloined from writers such as Thomas Frank and Thomas Byrne Edsall — conservatives continually gin up an essentially phony cultural class war over social issues, to distract people from the economic class war that the wealthy are winning.

— Buffett Rule. President Barack Obama is making this a centerpiece of his campaign. Originally proposed by Buffett himself, this rule holds that Warren Buffett should pay a higher tax rate than his secretary. And, more to the point, Mitt Romney should pay more than the 13.9 percent he did pay on his 2010 income of $21.6 million. Specifically, Obama proposes a minimum tax of 30 percent on all incomes over $1 million.

Lucky, Not Evil

Thirty percent is a perfectly reasonable tax rate on incomes over a million — even if the recipients are sainted small businessfolk. Whether 30 percent constitutes class warfare depends on the rhetoric that goes with it. People who make more than a million a year are not evil. They’re just lucky. Obama’s rhetoric has largely avoided cheap shots that imply otherwise.

But there’s a second problem with the Buffett Rule, as practiced by Obama: It lets too many people off the hook. As the right-wing media love to point out, it would only bring in about $4 billion a year, or about one day’s worth of the federal deficit.

Effective class warfare requires drawing a line and choosing a side. All this talk about millionaires effectively moves the line from $250,000 income a year (the level below which Obama has promised not to raise taxes) to $1 million (the level below which you don’t have to worry about the Buffett Rule). Politically, the more people on your side, the better. But economically, it makes the war nearly pointless.

— Soft Side. This is not a reference to luggage (though it may involve some baggage). A soft side is something that presidential candidates — especially a rich candidate — need to have, and that Romney is widely felt to lack. A soft side is evidence of personal vulnerability. Poor guy, everything has always gone well for him. He’s had no opportunity to suffer. Or, much worse, he may have suffered but won’t talk about it. This is downright un-American.

A refusal to reveal his soft side may have been the only evidence we have that there is something Romney won’t do or say to become president. Romney says frankly that if suffering is what you need, he’s not your guy.

C’mon, Mitt — this is no time for stoicism. His wife, Ann, has multiple sclerosis and they seem to have handled it as well as possible as individuals, as a couple and as a family. They’ve been playing it down, but that’s got to stop. And we need more anecdotes like the ones in the Washington Post this week about how Romney and his sons once rescued some people and their dog from a capsized boat, and about his work counseling neighbors as a lay pastor of his church. Rescuing the dog may counteract the only personal thing people do know about Romney, which is that story about strapping his caged dog to the top of the car.

Just Marvelous

— Marvelous. Obama actually started this one, mocking Romney for describing the Republican budget proposal as “marvelous.” Obama said it’s a word you don’t often hear describing a government budget proposal, or indeed at all.

Marvelous is not really such a rare word. But it does have a certain trivial, epicene quality that one associates with rich people and was not what Romney was trying to convey. (Remember the Billy Crystal character on “Saturday Night Live,” Fernando, with his tag line, “You look mah-velous”?) Romney should have said the Republican budget was “awesome.”

— Harvard. Romney said last week that Obama “spent too much time at Harvard.” This Harvard, in contrast to the real Harvard (well, as partly or somewhat in contrast to the real Harvard) is a place where people get indoctrinated with a lot of fancy left-wing theories and purged of any common sense or empathy with ordinary people that they might once have had. The laughably obvious trouble with this remark is that Romney himself spent four years at Harvard — one year longer than Obama — and got two Harvard degrees (law and business) as opposed to Obama’s one (law).

How could Romney say such an idiotic thing about Obama, given his own scandalous record of time spent at Harvard? Did no little voice in his head tell him, “Don’t go there”? Perhaps he observed how, in 1988, George Bush the Elder successfully used Harvard as a bludgeon against Michael Dukakis, even though Bush himself had gone to Yale.

Nevertheless, the fact that Romney thought he could play the Harvard card again suggests that he really will say anything to get elected. Or that it’s Romney, not Obama (as some Republicans have said), who gets in trouble when he departs from the teleprompter. Or possibly that he has bottomless contempt for the voters.

In the end, the voters don’t actually seem to share the thuggish anti-intellectualism implied by attacks on a rival presidential candidate for the sin of having attended one of the world’s great universities (and one of America’s great ornaments). Among the past four presidents, there are five Yale or Harvard degrees. To be sure, this is no guarantee of intelligence or wisdom. George W. Bush has one of each.

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Michael Kinsley

Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.