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Oh, Now That's Rich!

Commentary | JONATHAN CHAIT

October 01, 2004|JONATHAN CHAIT

Republicans have insisted for years that the American people don't resent the rich, they admire them. Strangely, though, they have devoted enormous energy this year to informing the American people that John F. Kerry is rich.

The Republican National Committee produced a game called Kerryopoly, in which a player earning $40,000 a year "can land on properties like Nantucket, worth $9.18 million, Beacon Hill, worth $6.9 million, or Idaho, worth $4.9 million." A television ad from a pro-GOP group mockingly lists his assets. "Designer shirt: $250. Forty-two-foot luxury yacht: $1 million. Four lavish mansions and a beachfront estate: over $30 million," intones an announcer, voice dripping with what does not sound like admiration.

Of course, Republicans must square their newfound contempt for wealth with the fact that their own candidate is rather well-to-do himself. A long article in the Weekly Standard this summer heroically attempts to divine a distinction. In the midst of heaping scorn upon Kerry's fortune, the author, Noemie Emery, insists that "Bush, with a mere $18 million or so, is very much at the low end" compared with Kerry, Dick Cheney and John Edwards. Emery's principle seems to be that being richer than 99.98% of the country makes you a regular Joe, but being richer than 99.99% of the country makes you a pampered plutocrat. Emery further argues: "Bush got his access by way of his parents, but [unlike Kerry] at least had to do something." That something consisted mainly of being placed by his father's friends and favor-seekers onto corporate boards where his primary job was to be named George W. Bush, before being named owner of a major league baseball team in return for the ludicrously small sum of $600,000. Which sounds easier: that, or having to marry the insufferable narcissist Teresa Heinz? I know which I'd pick.

A second problem for Republican Robespierres is their long record of denouncing what they call "class warfare." A few years ago, Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, defined class warfare as an effort to "divide people and try to disparage and to criticize others because they are successful." That's not a bad description of what they're doing to Kerry.

Indeed, conservatives are so sensitive to the dangers of class warfare that they define it more expansively. They consider it an act of class warfare not only to disparage the rich but even to suggest that there are times when public policies favor the rich too much. When Bush proposed his first tax cut, a reporter noted that some Democrats thought it was weighted too heavily toward the rich and asked whether he'd be willing to change ratios a bit. Bush replied dismissively, "I've heard all the talk about class warfare." First you're giving the rich a less-enormous tax cut than Bush wants, and pretty soon you're giving them the guillotine.

Republicans imply the real hypocrites are Kerry and his supporters. The ad vilifying Kerry's lifestyle calls him "a rich, liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a 'man of the people.' " I have not found any examples of Kerry describing himself this way. Nor does he (or any other mainstream Democrat) argue that it's wrong to be wealthy. But he and other Democrats do argue against conferring large benefits upon the well-to-do at the expense of things (cheaper healthcare, solvent budgets, better-funded homeland security) that benefit everybody. I have yet to see a conservative even attempt to explain what's wrong with rich Democrats putting what they see as the national interest ahead of the narrow interests of their own class.

The "class warfare" charge is, in reality, an effort to stifle any recognition of income inequality or the ways that their policies can exacerbate it. As Cheney put it this summer, "I've always had a problem with this notion that you should try to build a political career or an election victory trying to peddle the notion of class warfare, or that there were two different Americas. I fundamentally don't believe it." Yet an RNC spokesman notes, in the course of denigrating Kerry, "Most Americans can't afford yachts, private planes, $1,000 haircuts or homes in Nantucket." In the booming Bush economy, no less! Sounds like he thinks there are two Americas.

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