WASHINGTON—Republicans aren't mistaken when they say President Obama is declaring class warfare. He's been working that turf with a pretty big shovel. How many times have we heard that millionaires and billionaires (as though there were no difference) refuse to pay their fair share?
But Republicans are also playing the class card when they insist with equal passion that half of all Americans pay no taxes. Missing from this statement is the word "income," which would make the assertion truer. But it's more effective to imply that half the country—i.e., the shiftless and dependent—only want something for nothing.
What happens when you win an argument based on half-truths? In politics, it doesn't matter. Winning is all that matters. In real life, the people lose.
Obviously, those who pay no income tax earn so little that taxing their income is viewed as further hardship. But one could argue that a fair tax code would ask all Americans to pitch in at a level commensurate with their ability to ante up, thereby allowing them to be more invested in outcomes. In any case, people who have worked hard and succeeded are not the enemy of those who are doing less well. They are the people we all hope to emulate.
Nevertheless, people are angry, and justifiably. On left and right, they alternatively resent that government is doing too little or too much. Both tea partyers and the Occupy Wall Street crowd are essentially angry about the same things. Both are fundamentally against the establishment.
The philosophical differences that have led us to this precipice could be resolved with leadership, but there, too, lies a shortfall. Signing a pledge to never raise taxes, as many Republicans have done, sends an unhelpful message of intransigence to a nation in trouble. Adhering to that pledge, as Senate Republicans did in voting down a jobs bill that would have imposed a 0.7 percent surtax on 345,000 millionaires, seems an act of principle over sense, yet Republicans argue that the bill doesn't address the fundamental economic issues.
Meanwhile, Democrats' continued insinuation that the rich are robbing the poor is simply disingenuous. Who employs the poor if not the more prosperous? Who infuses charities with cash but the wealthy? Who grows the economy if not business, now too afraid to part with its money given the current uncertainties?
Mitt Romney was excoriated for saying that corporations are people, too. This sort of statement is easy to mock, but it is truer than the one that contends corporations are the enemy of the people. Corporations are made up of people—some heartless, I'll concede—who nonetheless provide jobs and grow the economy. Capitalism, the ogre of those protesting Wall Street, has suffered a public relations crisis in the wake of the global economic collapse. But any remedy to the systemic corruption that led to the collapse should not displace recognition that capitalism creates wealth. Capitalism, and no other economic system, has raised millions from poverty around the world.
The enemy is not really us, Pogo notwithstanding. It is political intransigence in the face of circumstances that can't be merely wished or spent or taxed away. It is the kind of populist rhetoric that places blame at the feet of a neighbor. The left's spin that Republicans who have blocked Obama's jobs bill do so because, as MSNBC's Ed Schultz proposed, "Republicans hate President Obama more than they love America," may get the blood boiling, but it is ridiculous, destructive and juvenile.
If one believes, as Republicans do and evidence suggests, that Obama's policies have made a bad situation terrible, then why wouldn't the GOP try to block him? Likewise, from a purely political standpoint, Obama may have no choice but to amp up the class warfare rhetoric.
Intensity polling shows that Republicans are far more fired up than Democrats as we approach the 2012 election. So Obama is substituting scold and blame for hope and change. We're not a red/blue country. We're a rich/poor nation, and the president is casting himself as Robin Hood.
It's an ugly gamble that could backfire. People can only sustain anger and resentment for so long, especially when these emotions are fundamentally at odds with the better angels of their identity. Americans are an optimistic, generous lot, confident in their ability to weather difficulties and invent solutions. Ingenuity is in their bones. In the end, they tend to prefer the candidate who can tap into the American reservoir of good will and can-do-ness. The next president won't likely be the angriest man standing.
Kathleen Parker's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group.