A new tone in the approaching election year echoes the spirit of Robin Hood, the legendary English archer who robbed the rich to give to the poor. This time it is taxes, not robbery, but the principle is the same.
Among the latest indicators was President Barack Obama’s populist call for a level economic playing field in a speech in a Kansas high school gym. He referred repeatedly to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 speech, also in Osawatomie, pressing his unsuccessful presidential bid through his Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt urged “a graduated income tax on big fortunes” and a graduated inheritance tax, “increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.” In an earlier speech, he had coined the epithet “malefactors of great wealth.”
Mr. Obama assailed the “breathtaking greed” that contributed to the 2008 financial panic and the continuing sluggish economy. He said the average income of the top 1 percent had gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million a year.
The influence of the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread across much of the electorate, with concern over the wealth and income gap between the super-rich and the rest of Americans. Its slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” has struck a resonance reaching far beyond its modest numbers.
Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins has evidently felt the same concern over the increasing wealth and income disparity. In explaining why she was the sole Republican senator to vote to continue the payroll tax cut beyond its Dec. 31 expiration, she used one of Mr. Obama’s favorite phrases, “the millionaires and billionaires.” Sen. Olympia Snowe voted against an earlier version that would have added a surcharge on incomes of $1 million or more. She argued that such a tax would hurt small businesses.
In her joint introduction of a job creation bill with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Sen. Collins said the proposal would be paid for by a surtax on taxpayers earning more than $1 million per year as well as “unnecessary tax subsidies” for big oil companies. She provided, however, for a “carve-out to protect small businesses, which typically pay taxes through the individual income tax system.” Most other Republicans have been protective and respectful for the big rich, who of course are their biggest political contributors.
Politicians from both major parties always have spoken of their high regard for the poor and middle class, but this outspoken populism and determination to do something about the economic gap looks like a sea change in national politics. The old conservative line that tax benefits for the rich will trickle down and help those on lower rungs is being stiffly tested by the Democrats. So is the conventional theory that it is the super-rich who produce jobs. Their yachts and mansions suddenly are getting more attention than their philanthropies.
As the rich get richer and the poor and middle class get poorer or struggle to stay in place, this new element promises to figure in the 2012 elections. The 99 percent are getting fresh attention from politicians who are listening.