Remembering When McCain Was Accused of Class Warfare

In the final weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin have accused Senator Barack Obama of being a socialist bent on taking money from hard-working folks to finance hand-outs to others. At the last presidential debate, McCain declared, “the whole premise behind Senator Obama’s plans are class warfare—let’s spread the wealth around.” This line of attack has been the centerpiece of McCain’s closing blast against Obama: because Obama wants to tax the well-to-do to pay for middle-class tax relief, he’s an untrustworthy, divisive, redistributionist who cares more about controlling wealth than creating it. He’s an enemy of the American dream.

But eight years ago, in January and February 2000, McCain was on the receiving end of similar criticism, as conservatives and Republicans accused him of engaging in class warfare by opposing tax breaks for the rich while advocating tax cuts for middle- and low-income Americans. That is, McCain was denounced in much the same way as he is now denouncing Obama.

Back then, McCain was locked in a fierce fight with George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination. Bush had proposed a massive tax-cuts package. At the time, McCain said, “Sixty percent of the benefits from [Bush’s] tax cuts go to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans–and that’s not the kind of tax relief that Americans need….I don’t believe the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans should get 60 percent of the tax breaks. I think the lowest 10 percent should get the breaks….I’m not giving tax cuts for the rich.” On Meet the Press, he maintained, “There’s a growing gap between rich and poor in America….I think that the people who need [tax cuts] most and need the relief most are working middle-income Americans.” At a campaign rally in February 2000, he declared, “I don’t think Bill Gates needs a tax cut. I think your parents do.” The New York Times described McCain’s tax plan as “apportioning the spoils of the nation’s current prosperity.”

For taking this stance, McCain was walloped by Republicans.

* On Hardball, former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp said, “John McCain is waging class warfare, and he should stop it.”

* On Meet the Press, Representative David Dreier, a California Republican supporting Bush, said of McCain’s stance, “The idea of engaging in class warfare is not a pro-California thing.”

* On CNN’s Crossfire, co-host Mary Matalin huffed, “John McCain has been running on…class warfare.”

* Texas Republican party head Susan Weddington excoriated McCain for engaging in a “shameless kind of class warfare.”

* The conservative Washington Times newspaper editorialized, “McCain has aggressively adopted the class-warfare tactics and rhetoric that Democrats have relentlessly used since 1980 to pillory tax-cuts plans of the sort proposed by President Reagan and Gov. Bush.”

* In a letter sent to hundreds of former Reagan administration officials, James Miller III and Lou Cordia, who both served in Ronald Reagan’s White House, argued that the Reagan mantle belonged to Bush partly because “McCain is using the class warfare rhetoric of the Democrats.”

* On Fox News, host Sean Hannity exclaimed, “John McCain has adopted the language of Clinton and Gore as it relates to class warfare.”

At a Republican presidential debate, McCain tried to fend off this criticism. “I’m deeply concerned about a kind of class warfare that’s going on right now, ” he said. “It’s unfortunate. There’s a growing gap between the haves and have-nots in America….And it’s unfortunately divided up along ethnic lines.” But the class warfare accusations hurled against McCain were part of a blistering anti-McCain crusade (waged by pro-Bush conservatives and Republicans) that worked. And after Bush won the election, McCain continued to oppose Bush’s tax-cuts package, noting on the Senate floor that it granted “generous tax relief to the wealthiest individuals of our country at the expense of lower- and middle-income American taxpayers.” Before voting against the Bush tax cuts in May 2001, McCain declared, “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 who most need tax relief.”

That was then. These days, McCain has adopted the tactics of his onetime enemies. Obama decries McCain’s proposed tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations, while advocating a tax hike for the wealthiest to finance tax relief for middle- and low-income Americans—and McCain slams him for engaging in class warfare. If the polls are any indicator, this strategy is not working for McCain as well as it did for Bush in 2000. But by throwing the class-warfare mud this time, McCain has not only engaged in a fundamental policy flip-flop; he has demonstrated that he’s become the sort of politician he once condemned.


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  • David Corn

    David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief and an on-air analyst for MSNBC. He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. He is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, Showdown, Hubris (with Isikoff), and The Lies of George W. Bush, as well as the e-book, 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook.