Monday, January 26, 2004

Classless Warfare

One thing about William Safire: you can never say that he’ll latch on to an idea and staunchly never budge. Oh, wait… he still sees Bill and Hillary under every bed, and he still thinks Ted Kennedy is a greater threat to America than the hearbreak of psoriasis. And now he’s running the old canard about class warfare around the block again.

Unpenitent pollsters are now confident that John Kerry and John Edwards (sure we voted for the war, but who knew?) will repeat their one-two performance in New Hampshire. And that Howard Dean (I knew, that’s who knew, and they didn’t) will run ahead of Clinton stand-in Wesley Clark, thereby staying in contention. And that Joe Lieberman may do well with independents, though they are mostly November Republicans.

These assumptions, to be tested soon enough, have Democratic soothsayers predicting a Kerry-Edwards ticket at the Boston convention. What delicious diversity: North and South, with Kerry’s fatal Massachusettsism ameliorated by Edwards’s Carolina charm; the experience of craggy Kerry enlivened by the passionate optimism of the boyish Edwards.

But the political philosophy these two men have embraced is lopsidedly leftist: In this campaign, they have clawed their way up the greasy pole of politics with a pitch that is pure populism. Both men have risen high in Democratic polls with a brand of class resentment and soak-the-rich rhetoric rooted in the old-fashioned liberalism of Ted Kennedy.


As Dean machine-gunned himself in the foot — in gaffes that dismayed Iowans weeks before his primal pep talk — his support did not switch to Clark, the inept amateur handled and financed by the Clintonites. Instead, many disillusioned Deaniacs went to a third faction that has long been lying in the Democratic weeds: the proponents of class warfare propounded for a generation by Ted Kennedy.

Not by John F. Kennedy, the president who cut taxes and would “bear any burden” in the defense of liberty. But by the Old Left led by his brother Teddy, scourge of conservative judges and free-market medicine, whose aging acolytes have tried to keep the not-so-hot liberal flame burning under the rich and powerful.


This sounds a little outdated at a time when the very rich pay most federal income taxes and the poor pay none. But envy still sells to a leftist constituency, especially to Democrats worried at the way Republicans were slavering for a Dean nomination. Kerry caught the spirit as his health recovered. He combined Old Left oratory with memories of his Vietnam valor and subsequent antiwar activism. While Dean started to self-destruct and Clark turned out to be a slow study, there stood Kerry, a tall, serious man with the leonine Ted Kennedy posing proudly at his side.

To buttress my theory of the rebirth of the Old Left, consider the way Kerry’s surprise runner-up in Iowa, John Edwards, has broken out of single digits in New Hampshire polls. Though the Southerner’s success is attributed to his counter-programmed sunniness, at its heart is the identical Ted Kennedy class message:

“Those Washington lobbyists are takin’ your democracy away from you,” says the Suthrin-talkin’ former trial lawyer (avidly supported by the trial lawyers’ lobby, which has driven up the price of health insurance). Edwards, though a freshman senator, has decades of experience in appealing to a jury’s resentments against corporations, and has honed his “two Americas” theme into the smoothest call for enforced leveling since Huey Long’s “every man a king.”

Class warfare may work in primaries but tends to backfire in the general election. Would it work for Kerry-Edwards? Ask Al Gore.

Trundling out the old class warfare line is the right-wing knee-jerk response to the Democrats, especially the line about the very rich paying most federal taxes and the poor paying none. (It’s a good thing he qualified it with the adjective “federal,” because when it comes to overall taxes – state, municipal and local – the middle class, purely by income and demographics, pay the majority of them.) Class warfare isn’t just a leftist tag. George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot all ran very loud campaigns that rattled the cages of the entrenched. Not a lefty in that bunch. But even a casual observer of the Bush legacy will see that if there’s any warfare being waged on a class, it’s not the rich, literally or figuratively. It’s not the rich who will have to pay for the tax cuts in ten years, who will lose their Social Security in twenty years, and get screwed over by their health insurance on the journey. And it sure isn’t the rich who are fighting and dying in Iraq.

For the record, Bill, Al Gore got 545,000 more votes than George W. Bush in 2000.