Class Warfare on the Campaign Trail

Republicans have often accused President Obama and Democrats of engaging in “class warfare” for wanting to push marginal tax rates for top earners back to where they were in the Clinton years.

That’s rubbish, of course. But we heard something much closer to it Tuesday when the president addressed the United Auto Workers convention in Washington, DC.

It was an old-fashioned, stem-winding Democratic speech. It also was a great campaign speech for a base he’s trying to rebuild. His target: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose notorious 2008 op-ed in The New York Times was called “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

President Obama at UAW conference in Washington. White House photo: Pete Souza


Here’s what the president said:

But they’re still talking about you as if you’re some greedy special interest that needs to be beaten. Since when are hardworking men and women special interests? Since when is the idea that we look out for each other a bad thing?

This notion that we should have let the auto industry die; that we should pursue anti-worker policies in hopes unions like yours will unravel – it’s part of that same old you’re-on-your-own philosophy that says we should just leave everyone to fend for themselves.

We will not settle for a country where a few people do really well, and everyone else struggles to get by. We’re fighting for an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony profits.

That same night, Romney, having just won an important but narrow victory in the Michigan primary, shared his vision of where he wanted to take the country:

In this campaign, I’m offering a real choice and a very different direction. I have a plan that will restore America’s promise through more jobs and less debt and smaller government. President Obama is making the federal government bigger, more burdensome and loaded. I’ll make it smaller and simpler.

I said it before, and I firmly believe it, that this campaign is about saving the soul of America. This election…comes down to two very different visions of America. It’s a choice between becoming a nation of and by Washington or remaining a nation of and by a free people. A choice between an entitlement society and the land of opportunity. A choice between squandering America’s promise and restoring that promise for future generations.

Clearly the president is connecting with his base—in this case, organized labor—better than Romney is connecting with his. But the differences between them are stark: the president’s Solidarity Forever vs. the former governor’s “let the chips fall where they may.”

To me, each of them echoes the passions of their party’s base, who for the most part are living in the past. They embody the old ideologies of capital vs. labor in an age often described as post-industrial. Class warfare indeed: choose your poison.

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