“Class warfare!”

    Like Pavlovian dogs, Republicans in recent days have reflexively barked their favorite rhetorical trope: “Class warfare!”How tiresomely predictable. While President Obama was readying his tax-the-rich deficit-reduction plan for a Monday rollout, the GOP were already howling on the Sunday shows about the dreaded CW. In the words of budget maven and aspiring Medicare-killer Paul Ryan, “Class warfare will simply divide this country more.” He was duly echoed by Republican brethren like Sen. Lindsey Graham, who remarked, “When you pick one area of the economy and you say, ‘we’re going to tax those (rich) people because most people are not those people, that’s class warfare.”This has been the GOP’s conditioned response to tax-burden issues since around 1992, when party wordsmiths began to own the phrase via frequent repetition. What’s amazing, of course, is that the Republicans have been allowed to get away with it – given the fact that the GOP’s rich clientele has been incrementally getting richer at the expense of everyone else. If there has indeed been “class warfare” in this country during the past three decades, the rich have already won. They have already staged their victory parade, brandishing a surrender document signed by most of their fellow citizens.What’s also tiresomely predictable is that the Democrats long ago ceded the CW phrase. Republicans understand so much better than their hapless opponents that capturing the language is crucially important – because when you capture the language, and frame the terms of debate, you have a darn good chance to capture hearts and minds.In our inverted political universe, if you demand that the richest Americans sacrifice more in order to benefit the rest of the citizenry during a severe fiscal crisis, supposedly that’s “class warfare.” But if you defend the rich, safeguard their money, and demand (via deep federal program cuts) that the burden of sacrifice fall on the people far lower on the income scale…nope, supposedly that is not “class warfare.” We might as well be characters in a Superman comic book, dwelling in Bizarro World, where the motto is “Us do opposite!”I first recall hearing the CW phrase in ’92, when incumbent George H. W. Bush put it in frequent rotation (“Candidate Clinton is playing the old games that liberals love to play, class warfare, divide Americans rich from poor, one group from another”). Bush lost that race, but the GOP was undaunted. Newt Gingrich used it a lot during his brief House ascent, and the younger George Bush bludgeoned Al Gore with it during the 2000 campaign. (Then, in 2001, came the Bush tax cuts that were heavily tilted toward the rich, and that helped exacerbate the growing income disparity between the rich and the middle class…but, according to the GOP’s framing of the phrase, that was not “class warfare.”)How weird it is that the GOP can skate relatively unscathed with its insistence that taxing the rich will “divide this country” – when, in fact, we are already starkly divided along economic lines, with the rich reaping the largesse. I hesitate to cite the obvious empirical facts – because numbers are boring and post-fact readers will choose not to believe them anyway – but what the heck:For instance, as The Wall Street Journal reports: “The average tax rate for the top 400 earners in the U.S. fell to as low as 16.62 percent in 2007, from a recent peak of 29.9 percent in 1995,” thanks largely to the Bush tax cuts on capital gains and dividends. As the Journal pointed out, roughly 56 percent of the top earners’ incomes, on average, are comprised of capital gains” – a percentage that humble citizens can’t hope to match.Indeed, as studies have shown, the various Bush tax cuts on investment income did wonders for those who make $10 million or more a year – boosting take-home pay by an average of $500,000 per household. By contrast, those windfalls did little for the average person. As one recent statistical chart pointed out, 70 percent of the money garnered from the investment tax cuts went to the people who make more than $200,000 a year – the top two percent on the income scale. All this, during a decade when the average household income was flat or falling.This was hardly just a Bush phenomenon, of course; the rich have been getting richer, while everyone else has been falling behind, since at least 1979. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Between 1979 and 2007, the average after-tax incomes for the top one percent (of earners) rose by 281 percent after adjusting for inflation – an increase in income of $973,100 per household – compared to increases of 25 percent ($11,200 per household)” for the middle class.As Warren Buffett quipped on ABC News back in 2003, “Well, I’ll tell you, if it’s ‘class warfare,’ my class is winning.”The Obama team was right last night when it circulated an email denouncing the Republicans’ recycled CW language as a “rhetorical smokescreen.” As the stats make clear, the people who have clout have long waged “class warfare” against those who lack it. And if all the polls are accurate, most Americans are open to the idea of demanding more fiscal sacrifice from those who can best afford it.Obama and the Democrats may never own the CW language, but they do have a fresh opportunity to frame this deficit-reduction debate as a choice between sacrifice and selfishness – and to challenge the GOP to pick a side.——-The White House wants the tax-burden battle to dominate the news cycle, if only to divert attention from the embarrassing new book by Ron Suskind, chronicling the Obama economic team. (I referenced it here yesterday.) And here’s a new embarrassment:In the book, Obama aide Anita Dunn was quoted as complaining that “this place would be in court for a hostile workplace….Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.” A few days ago, Dunn insisted that she had been quoted of context. But Suskind had recorded his Dunn interview; yesterday, he shared it with a Washington Post reporter. And today, the reporter shared it with us. Here’s Dunn, talking to Suskind:”I remember once I told Valerie that, I said if it weren’t for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”When a Washington player claims that he or she was quoted out of context, it generally means that he or she has been busted.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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