September 21, 2012

GOING WITH THE best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach, the Romney campaign is accusing President Obama of being a — gasp! — redistributionist. In a rather pale replay of 2008’s Joe the Plumber spread-the-wealth debate, the GOP dredged up a 14-year-old video.

In it, Mr. Obama, then a state senator, said, “I think the trick is figuring out, how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution, because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody’s got a shot.”

Mitt Romney and his campaign seized on the clip as ominous evidence of Mr. Obama’s European socialist tendencies. “I know there are some who believe that, if you simply take from some and give to others, then we’ll all be better off. It’s known as redistribution. It’s never been a characteristic of America,” Mr. Romney said.

The campaign apparently thinks that voters will find “redistribution” a scary word. But does Mr. Romney really disagree with the belief that part of government’s role is, in Mr. Obama’s words, to help “make sure that everybody’s got a shot”? To tax is to redistribute. To govern is to redistribute. Benefits from government spending flow in different amounts to different individuals and different states. Unless Mr. Romney envisions government stripped down to the role of providing for the national defense and building a road or two, and it is clear that he doesn’t, it is hard to imagine a world in which government does not play some redistributionist role.

More to the point, Mr. Romney himself has endorsed redistributionism. He does not proposing abolishing Medicaid, Pell grants for college affordability or food stamps — all ways in which government redistributes benefits to those less well off. Indeed, Mr. Romney has proposed more redistribution. Social Security is a redistributionist program — lower-income retirees have a larger share of their incomes replaced than do better-off seniors — that Mr. Romney wants to make more redistributionist by slowing the growth in benefits for those with higher incomes. On Medicare, likewise, Mr. Romney is explicitly redistributionist: “Lower-income seniors will receive more generous support to ensure that they can afford coverage; wealthier seniors will receive less support.”

Mr. Romney favors — brace yourselves — a progressive tax code. He has said that one of the principles of his details-to-follow tax plan is to maintain the current progressivity of the code so that the wealthiest continue to pay the same share of taxes — that is, a larger share of taxes than the less well-off pay. Mr. Romney’s approach to taxing capital gains is similarly redistributionist: He wants to eliminate capital gains taxes for those making less than $200,000 but to keep them on wealthier taxpayers.

It’s indisputable that Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama have diverging views about the danger posed by increasing income inequality and the degree of redistribution in which government should engage. But the Romney campaign’s desperate, clownish portrayal of Mr. Obama does this important debate a serious disservice.