Editor's note: Howell Raines, an author and former executive editor of The New York Times, is working on a novel set during the Civil War.
(CNN) -- President Obama says the new Buffett Rule "is not class warfare," raising once again the question of why he and his party keep rowing back from one of the Democrats' most potent arguments.
They seem to have accepted the Republicans' pejorative definition of economic class warfare as an un-American evil. As Warren Buffet points out, middle-income Americans ought to be protesting a system in which billionaires like him pay a third to a half of the 33% tax rate of Buffet's secretary.
In fact, nonviolent class struggle over income distribution has a long and beneficial history in this country and most other industrial democracies. Starting with the rise of the Populist Party in the late 19th century, continuing into the Progressive Era and the New Deal, grabbing for and getting a bigger slice of the economic pie for wage earners has been a major stabilizing force in American democracy. We are now racing in the direction of income polarization and the political instability that inevitably accompanies the contraction of the middle class and a concentration of wealth within a tiny minority.
Based on the numbers, President Obama ought to be able to win this argument easily. As former President Clinton pointed out in an interview Monday, 10% of the population have taken 90% of the benefits of economic growth. James Carville is probably right that it's time for Obama to fire the White House communications team and carry the economic fight to the Republicans. It could hardly hurt when the voters who are getting their pockets picked are siding with the Republican corporate oligarchs who used to be the Democrats' arch-villains.
In the current journalistic environment only the rich may be greedy without blame, and it is not just Fox, but the mainstream media, as well, that parrots the "class warfare" criticism and puts a negative spin on anything that can be called "populism." For their part, Congressional Democrats seem allergic to their own president's advocacy of a minimally fair tax rate on rich individuals and corporations.
They are also timid about challenging the Republicans on their myth-making propaganda about "job creators." What evidence can House Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan produce that repealing Bush-era tax rates for couples making more than $250,000 and allowing the top marginal tax rates of 33 percent and 35 percent to revert to 36 percent and 39.6 percent next year would prevent corporations and investors from creating jobs?
What can be deduced is that corporations are content to sit on their $2 trillion in cash reserves as long as tax breaks and lax regulations make reinvestment for growth a less attractive alternative. All MBA students are taught "cash is king," and the banks have taken the slogan so seriously they won't even release to credit markets the $2 trillion in bailout funds given them as a gift outright. The job creators aren't creating anything. They're sitting on every tax-free dollar they can while the sitting is good.
So how did we get to this point? Something is clearly wrong with Kansas and the rest of Middle America when it comes to letting economic self-interest guide their voting.
The decline of the labor movement, which was a powerful instrument of economic education for the masses, surely must have something to do with it. Then there is the impact of more than 30 years of conservative distortion of America's economic vocabulary since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. He showed his party that making vague promises to preserve the "safety net" was smarter politics than tackling the real problems of Social Security disability, private pension funds and indigent health care. By 1984, the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, was ridiculed for trying to make campaign themes of "fairness" and "compassion."
This history gives one pause about urging Obama to argue more openly for fairer distribution of income. Certainly if we are in a class war over money, only one side is fighting. Probably not even Reagan, an ex-New Dealer, expected so complete a turnaround on what used to be called "pocketbook issues."
In interviewing a Republican guest, Mitch Daniels, Jon Stewart noted last week that the bottom 50% of the population owns less than 2.5% of the nation's wealth. If that's not the result of class warfare, Stewart wondered, what is? Put that way, the question seemed momentarily to fluster Daniels, as if he had not realized how completely the affluent have triumphed.
Finally, Daniels allowed that maybe some tax fairness could be considered as long as it didn't hurt the job creators. No wonder he got thrown out of the Republican presidential race, given such blatant advocacy of class warfare against the deserving rich.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howell Raines.