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The 'Socialist' Scare

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008; Page A19

WOODBRIDGE -- John McCain should not have to be here, not on a crisp October Saturday scarcely two weeks before the election. Prince William County is the electoral Maginot line between the Washington suburbs and what a McCain spokeswoman has just unhelpfully described as "real Virginia." George W. Bush twice won 53 percent of the vote in this booming exurb, mirroring his statewide totals.

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But here is McCain, in front of one sign reading "Phil the Bricklayer" and another proclaiming "Rose the Teacher." If there are any undecided voters here, I have not found them, and McCain does not seem to be looking. His red-meat message is not pitched to the wavering.

"Senator Obama's economic goal is, as he told Joe, quote, spread the wealth around," McCain warns, to angry cries of "Socialist!" Obama's tax plan "is not a tax cut -- it's just another government giveaway," McCain warns. "I won't let that happen to you. You're paying enough taxes."

Outside the rally, a man is handing out "Obama for Change" bumper stickers -- with a Soviet red star and the "g" rendered as a hammer-and-sickle.

There is an ugliness to the McCain campaign's closing days. Sarah Palin talks about "pro-America areas of this great nation." Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann pronounces herself "very concerned that [Obama] may have anti-American views." Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich, ordinarily much more sensible, says, "With all due respect, the man is a socialist."

And McCain is the stoker in chief of the argument that Obama is Eugene V. Debs revisited. "Obama raises taxes on seniors, hardworking families to give 'welfare' to those who pay none," a McCain ad warns. "Joe, in his plain-spoken way, said this sounded a lot like socialism," McCain said in a recent radio address. "And a lot of Americans are thinking along those same lines."

The candidates have different visions about the proper role of government; these are fair, and important, grounds for debate. Obama has committed his share of fouls, scaring seniors about McCain's designs on their Social Security and Medicare and mischaracterizing McCain's health-care program.

And, yes, all hard-fought elections turn nasty, despite the best intentions of the candidates. But for all the hand-wringing over Swift-boating in 2004, those charges came from an outside group, not the candidate they sought to benefit, and went to John Kerry's character, not the legitimacy of his governing philosophy.

There are two equally worrying aspects of the toxic fallout from the McCain campaign's closing argument. The first is how much harder it will be for the next president to unite a divided country in the way that both McCain and Obama say they want. Ominous talk about socialism and welfare, about pro- and anti-America, threatens to make that task harder, no matter who is elected.

The second is the long-term damage to the ability to move beyond the stale "no new taxes" debate and have an adult discussion about how to raise the revenue the country needs to make investments for the future, even as it provides for an aging population.

McCain's angry denunciation of socialist wealth-spreading ignores the fact that the country has always had a progressive tax code. McCain himself once seemed to embrace the sensible notion that those who reap greater rewards should contribute more back.

"I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans," he said in voting against the 2001 Bush tax cuts.

When McCain inveighs against Obama's plan to give tax credits to "those who pay none," he ignores the fact that the 40 percent who do not owe income tax still have 7.65 percent taken out in payroll taxes.

Even now, McCain's own health-care plan offers a tax credit to people who owe no income taxes. In Woodbridge, McCain brags about his own "refundable tax credit" to help people purchase insurance -- just minutes after assailing Obama's refundable credit as a "government giveaway."

"I make over $250,000 a year, between my wife and I," Thomas Jacoby, a 62-year-old contractor, tells me in Woodbridge. "I don't want to share it with anybody."

As any parent understands, sharing is not the most natural of human instincts. But government is fundamentally about sharing for the common good; taxes are, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, the price of a civilized society.

McCain is running a campaign both uncivil and uncivilizing -- one I expect he will rue, win or lose.

marcusr@washpost.com

Read more from Ruth Marcus on washingtonpost.com's political opinion blog, PostPartisan.


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