Aaron McLear is a political consultant with the Ginsberg McLear Group in Sacramento.

Viewpoints: Proposals to tax the rich smack of class warfare

Published: Sunday, May. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 13, 2012 - 10:05 am

I'm not rich, but I hope to be some day. I suspect that's not a unique sentiment, yet both President Barack Obama and California Gov. Jerry Brown are betting big that voters want to punish people for being successful.

Both the president and the governor are running the last play in the Democratic playbook and a sure sign of a desperate campaign that doesn't believe it can run on its record: class warfare.

Never mind that Obama and Brown came into office promising new leadership: challenging the status quo's petty partisan battles to bring the left and right together for the benefit of all. Hope and Change. They abandoned those promises early on.

In his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, candidate Obama said, "If you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things." Yet this is exactly the campaign he is running.

After his election, the president immediately went so far to the left that voters handed him and Democrats a historic rejection in the 2010 midterms. The GOP picked up 63 House seats, six Senate seats and a record 680 state legislative seats – though California Republicans, amazingly, managed to be the only state in the country to actually lose legislative seats.

Now the president is focusing on the "fairness" of the Buffett Rule, which would raise $1.1 billion, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the $1.2 trillion budget deficit the country will run up this year. It's not a solution; it's a political argument for the rich guy he's running against.

Brown made similar promises on the campaign trail. The veteran statesman told voters he would have the chops to tell it like it is, and to persuade Republicans and Democrats to find common ground.

It's hard to believe now, but in June 2010, Brown actually said, "I have the preparation, the know-how – and the independence – to challenge the status quo and get our legislators to work together as Californians first, not just members of the Democratic or Republican parties."

Brown made a brief attempt to work with Republicans on his first budget but quickly gave up any bipartisanship within his first few months in office.

Since those budget talks fell apart, Brown and his team have too often engaged in petty name-calling or simply ignoring Republicans. Are Republicans just as guilty? Probably. But the governor is supposed to be the adult in the room; that's what he campaigned on.

Now Brown has bowed to a second-rate union and is staking his first term on a soak-the-rich tax scheme that he acknowledges results in "more volatility," leaving the budget in "a more or less constant state" of deficits. What's worse, the taxes will do little, if anything to solve the state's structural budget problems and instead just shore up the balance sheet of increasingly out-of-control public employee pension funds.

Though he is now trying to backtrack from characterizing his proposal as a "millionaires' tax" – his website is titled "Millionaires Tax of 2012" – Brown recently defended it, with this head-scratcher: "Anybody who makes $250,000 becomes a millionaire very quickly, if you save it. You just need four years."

That Obama and Brown are running class warfare campaigns isn't surprising, given their thin records of accomplishment, though Brown deserves credit for his legitimate budget-cutting. What's surprising is that they believe it is a smart strategy.

A poll of independent voters in a dozen swing states (not California) by the centrist think tank Third Way showed that 57 percent believe the American economic system is basically fair and not stacked against them. When asked what strategy would best fix the economy, reducing income inequality was the least popular response (22 percent), behind reducing the budget deficit (42 percent), and reducing regulations and taxes on businesses (28 percent).

In fact, 80 percent said they would support a candidate "focusing on economic growth and opportunity" while just 15 percent would support one "focusing on income inequality." The most coveted voters in the country overwhelmingly prefer "opportunity" to "fairness."

While attacking the rich will play well to their base, the president and the governor are leaving the middle wide open. Though both came into office with positive messages of unity, they've now been reduced to co-opting the negative, divisive message of the Occupy movement.

Their message of derision and blame won't sit well with the majority of voters who reside between the two extremes. I live there, as do most of my friends. We're not rich, but we all want the opportunity to get there.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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