Imagine that instead of telling Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher that "when you spread the wealth around it's good for everybody," Barack Obama had said the following:
We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. ... The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and ... a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
The New York Post's Page One would blare: "OBAMA: I'LL SEIZE 'SWOLLEN FORTUNES'!" Bill Kristol would demand to know, in his New York Times column, what godly powers enabled Obama to discern precisely whose wealth - David Geffen's? George Soros'? - would "benefit the community." On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly would start to say something, then sputter, turn purple, and keel over backward in a grand mal seizure.
John McCain, meanwhile, would have to stop saying that Teddy Roosevelt is his hero, because the passage quoted above is from TR's "New Nationalism" speech of 1910. Either that, or McCain would have to quit calling Barack Obama a socialist.
TR justified progressive taxation straightforwardly as a matter of equality. In his 1907 State of the Union address, Roosevelt said:
Our aim is to recognize what Lincoln pointed out: The fact that there are some respects in which men are obviously not equal; but also to insist that there should be an equality of self-respect and of mutual respect, an equality of rights before the law, and at least an approximate equality in the conditions under which each man obtains the chance to show the stuff that is in him when compared to his fellows.
Obama is constrained by a very different political climate to justify his sole proposed tax hike - on incomes above $250,000 - by stating its benefit to commerce. Here's his "spread the wealth around" comment in context:
I do believe that for folks like me, who have worked hard but, frankly, have also been lucky, I don't mind paying just a little bit more than the waitress who I just met over there who, things are slow, and she can barely make the rent. My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's going to be good for everybody. If you've got a plumbing business, you're going to be better off if you've got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you. And right now, everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody. And I think when you spread the wealth around it's good for everybody.
In a radio address on Oct. 18, McCain said that to the "straight-talking," "plainspoken" Wurzelbacher, words like "spread the wealth around" "sounded a lot like socialism. And a lot of Americans are thinking along those same lines. ... At least in Europe, the Socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are up front about their objectives. They use real numbers and honest language. And we should demand equal candor from Sen. Obama."
In a speech Wednesday in Manchester, N.H., McCain expostulated further:
Joe and guys like him will earn the wealth. Barack and politicians like him will spread it. Joe didn't really like that idea, and neither did a lot of other folks who believe that their earnings are their own. After all, before government can redistribute wealth, it has to confiscate wealth from those who earned it. And whatever the right word is for that way of thinking, the redistribution of wealth is the last thing America needs right now. In these tough economic times, we don't need government "spreading the wealth" - we need policies that create wealth and spread opportunity.
When TR spoke of "swollen fortunes" and "malefactors of great wealth," socialism was a genuine force in American politics, perceived by many to pose a serious threat to the social order. When TR first called for a "graduated income tax" in his 1907 State of the Union, he was proposing a measure that the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional. Indeed, the federal income tax struck down by the court wasn't even "graduated," or progressive; it was a flat-rate tax.
Today, McCain demagogically attacks Obama's purported "socialism" knowing that socialism is a dead letter in the United States. He feigns shock at progressive taxation ("confiscate wealth") nearly a century after the states ratified the 16th Amendment, enabling Congress to enact a progressive income tax, and nearly a decade after he himself scolded a town-hall questioner on MSNBC's Hardball who cried "socialism" about the rich having to pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes. "Here's what I really believe," McCain said. "When you are - reach a certain level of comfort, there's nothing wrong with paying somewhat more."
In his book the Great Tax Wars, Steven Weisman, formerly of the New York Times, writes that TR's previous experience as police commissioner of New York City made him worry "about anarchy arising from gross economic inequality." Today, the income gap between the top 0.01 percent of families in the United States and the bottom 90 percent is greater than it was in TR's day.
TR, of course, was no socialist. Indeed, his purpose was largely to prevent socialists from coming to power. But the trust buster got called a socialist a lot more often than Obama ever will. He writes in his autobiography:
Because of things I have done on behalf of justice to the workingman, I have often been called a Socialist. Usually I have not taken the trouble even to notice the epithet. ... Moreover, I know that many American Socialists are high-minded and honorable citizens, who in reality are merely radical social reformers. They are opposed to the brutalities and industrial injustices which we see everywhere about us.
TR then goes on to outline his strong differences "with the Marxian Socialists" and their belief in class warfare and the inevitable demise of capitalism. Later, he returns to his earlier theme:
Many of the men who call themselves socialists today are in reality merely radical social reformers, with whom on many points good citizens can and ought to work in hearty general agreement, and whom in many practical matters of government good citizens can well afford to follow.
There were, however, limits to TR's tolerance. "I have always maintained," he concluded, "that our worst revolutionaries today are those reactionaries who do not see and will not admit there is any need for change."
Timothy Noah is a senior writer at Slate.
"There should be an equality of self-respect and of mutual respect, an equality of rights before the law, and at least an approximate equality in the conditions under which each man obtains the chance to show the stuff that is in him when compared to his fellows."
Theodore Roosevelt, 1907 State of the Union address