At the start of Tuesday night's Las Vegas presidential debate, Newt Gingrich sounded a theme that nearly every Republican candidate has used against President Barack Obama. "When I am president," Gingrich promised, "we're going to replace class warfare with cooperation." • And then, for nearly two hours, the Republican candidates waged class warfare.
The first shot came from Rick Santorum. It was aimed at Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan. Santorum cited an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, which concluded that the plan would cut taxes on the top 20 percent of earners but raise taxes on the bottom 80 percent. Santorum objected: "When you don't provide a standard deduction, when you don't provide anything for low-income individuals, and you have a sales tax and an income tax and, as Michele said, a value-added tax, which is really what his corporate tax is, we're talking about major increases in taxes on people."
When you don't provide anything for low-income individuals. In other words, the lower class deserves a break so that it doesn't pay the same rate as the upper class.
Cain rejected this criticism, explaining, "We do provide a provision, if you read the analysis, something we call opportunity zones, that will, in fact, address the issue of those making the least." According to Cain's website, the plan "features a platform to launch properly structured Empowerment Zones to renew our inner cities." These zones "will offer deductions" from the plan's "9 Percent Business Flat Tax" and its "9 Percent Individual Flat Tax." So the taxes aren't really flat. If you live or work in a struggling inner-city neighborhood — that is, if you're lower-class or underclass — you get a better rate.
That answer didn't satisfy Ron Paul. "The worst part about" Cain's plan, he argued, was that "it's regressive. A lot of people aren't paying any taxes, and I like that." The 9-9-9 plan, Paul repeated, "is a regressive tax."
In last week's debate, Mitt Romney advocated a class-based approach to tax cuts. "If I'm going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes," he said, "I want to focus on where the people are hurting the most, and that's the middle class. I'm not worried about rich people."
When the debate moved on from tax cuts to job creation, Santorum boasted:
"I've put forward the plan that's going to allow for income mobility. That's a new term, but I've been using it for a long time, which is people at the bottom part of the income scale being able to rise in society. Believe it or not, studies have been done that show that in Western Europe, people at the lower parts of the income scale actually have a better mobility going up the ladder now than in America. … And that's why I focus all of the real big changes in the tax code at manufacturing."
In Western Europe, people at the lower parts of the income scale actually have a better mobility going up the ladder now than in America. That's a critique of entrenched class structure combined with a slam at the United States vis-à-vis Europe. If Obama had said it, every Republican presidential candidate would have called him an anti-American Marxist. Yet none of them uttered a peep in response to Santorum's remarks.
When the debate moved on to the 2008 bailout, Paul protested:
"Guess who they bailed out? The big corporations of people who were ripping off the people in the derivatives market. And they said, 'Oh, the world's going to come to an end unless we bail out all the banks.' … But who got stuck? The middle class got stuck. They got stuck. They lost their jobs, and they lost their houses. If you had to give money out, you should have given it to people who were losing their mortgages, not to the banks."
So, to summarize Paul's philosophy: Taxes are bad, but more so if they apply to the lower class. And bailouts are bad, but less so if they target the middle class.
In the debate's closing moments, Cain took a final shot at Romney: "There's one difference between the two of us in terms of our experience. With all due respect, his business executive experience has been more Wall Street-oriented. Mine has been more Main Street. I have managed small companies. I've actually had to clean the parking lot."
Apparently, in this presidential election, it's a liability not just to have served in public office, but also to have run a big company. It's an asset, on the other hand, to have held the most menial job.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that the Republicans are actually Marxists. They're just speaking up for compassion, social mobility and progressive taxation. There's nothing wrong with that. What's wrong is crying "class warfare" when Obama does the same thing.
© 2011 Slate