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CAMPAIGN '08: THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE

A liberal use of the word?

McCain's efforts to portray Obama as far left obscure subtleties in the Democrat's policies.

October 24, 2008|Janet Hook | Hook is a Times staff writer.

WASHINGTON — Heading into the home stretch of the presidential campaign, John McCain has been sharpening his closing argument against his Democratic opponent, saying that Barack Obama's tax policies would produce a redistribution of wealth that borders on socialism.

That message has pervaded recent campaign events, including what McCain called a "Joe the Plumber" tour of Florida on Thursday, as the Arizona Republican has tried to portray Obama as an extreme liberal who would soak job-creating businesses and wealthier Americans in order to dole out money to those too poor to pay taxes.

The renewed effort to depict Obama as a liberal marks a departure from McCain's earlier efforts to paint the Illinois senator as too inexperienced for the Oval Office, but it draws on a familiar Republican tradition of describing opponents as outside the mainstream.

In 2004, President Bush accused Democrat John F. Kerry of residing on the "far left bank" of the mainstream. The Democrats' 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis, was disparaged by the GOP as a Massachusetts liberal and a "card-carrying member of the ACLU."

This year, Republicans are drawing on an independent analysis of Obama's voting record that identified him as the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007. Obama has been endorsed by Americans for Democratic Action, a bastion of liberalism. He was an early opponent of the war in Iraq and supports new government efforts to expand healthcare coverage.

But the liberal label obscures subtleties in Obama's record and campaign message: He has tacked to the center on issues such as the death penalty and government wiretapping. He has a mixed record on trade policy. His campaign fliers promise, "Barack Obama won't take away your guns."

Indeed, some liberal Democrats have been impatient with his forays to the center. "There are plenty of people on the left who are disappointed with what they see as a timidity in his policy prescriptions," said Jim Jordan, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns, including Kerry's.

One area where Obama's policies have been straightforwardly liberal is taxation.

For individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and couples earning more than $250,000, Obama would raise the top tax rates on income and capital gains by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire.

He also has suggested raising the Social Security payroll tax on those upper-income people.

But for less affluent workers, Obama offers a variety of tax cuts. Some proposals -- including a $1,000 credit for everyone who is employed -- would benefit people who earn too little to owe income taxes. Under such a "refundable" tax break, people who have no tax liability to reduce would receive a cash rebate.

About 40% of workers do not make enough to pay income taxes. Obama argues that they deserve relief because they pay other levies, such as payroll taxes, which fund Social Security and Medicare.

McCain says the cash payments to these earners would be tantamount to welfare. A recent campaign Internet ad charges: "Obama raises taxes on seniors, on hard-working families, to give 'welfare' to those who pay none."

"Sen. Obama is more interested in controlling who gets your piece of a pie than he is in growing the pie," McCain said in Orlando on Thursday.

It was one stop in a bus tour across central Florida that McCain's campaign named for Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, or "Joe the Plumber," the Ohio man who complained to Obama in person about his tax policies. Wurzelbacher has yet to appear at McCain's side, but McCain has cited him every day recently as a symbol of Americans who would suffer under Obama's plan.

Obama had told Wurzelbacher during their campaign trail conversation: "It's not that I want to punish your success. . . . I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." McCain has suggested since then that "spreading the wealth" is tantamount to socialism.

"Now is no time to experiment with socialism," McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, has cautioned.

McCain himself supports using tax credits as a form of financial aid, even for those who don't pay taxes. That is a key element of his healthcare initiative, which gives a credit worth $5,000 to help families buy insurance.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said he favored the concept in that context because taxpayers can use the credit only for health insurance. "You can't spend it on a flat-screen TV," he said.

In any case, using tax credits as financial aid is a far cry from socialism, which typically involves government ownership of major industries. Obama's plan is in keeping with the concept of a progressive tax system, taxing wealthier people at higher rates than the less affluent.

"Obama is not a flaming liberal, but he will do what every liberal does: keep the needs of ordinary working Americans foremost on his agenda," said Amy Isaacs, national director of Americans for Democratic Action.

McCain's arguments about Obama's liberalism draw big cheers at his rallies, but some Republicans wonder if they will be effective with swing voters who would benefit from his tax policies.

"If you lose all the people who don't pay taxes, you'll have a hard time getting past the lead Obama has," said Eddie Mahe, a former Republican Party official.

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janet.hook@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Orlando contributed to this report.

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