WASHINGTON — THE middle class is the battleground of this election campaign, political pundits say.
But what is "the middle class?" Ask a politician, and he's likely to wax eloquent about values and aspirations. Ask a government agency, and the answer will be: There is no definition.
Ask the Democratic side of the Senate Budget Committee, and you'll hear, "those making $60,000 or less." Why $60,000? Because, says a staff member, that is the top income the committee can offer a tax break to and still figure out a way to pay for it elsewhere in the budget.
The Congressional Budget Office has no formal definition, but a tax analyst sketched out the rough outlines of "middle income": for a single person, an annual income between $10,000 and $40,000; for a three-person household, between $15,000 and $60,000; for four people, between $20,000 and $80,000.
Of course, that does not factor in geography. "Someone in Chillicothe, Ohio, earning $38,000 a year can call themselves middle class, while someone in New York City who's making 40 percent more may not," says political analyst Kevin Phillips.
For politicians, the most important indicator is how many people consider themselves middle class - a number that has risen dramatically. As recently as the 1980s, polls showed between 68 and 74 percent considered themselves middle class. But, ironically, as the ranks of the middle class have shrunk, the number of people defining themselves as middle class has gone way up, to around 90 percent.
With at least 13 percent of the population living below the poverty level ($14,200 annual income for a family of four), that means some poor people feel middle class, even if their current financial status doesn't support that.
At the other end of the scale, many people in the top one-fifth of income don't realize they make more than most other people, and think politicians are talking about them when they promise a middle-class tax break.
Economists point out that any snapshot of the nation's income structure fails to account for "income mobility a household's shift from one status to another, perhaps because a member joins or leaves the work force. A family that is currently living below the poverty level and receiving food stamps may expect to pull out of that situation, and so considers itself middle class.
When identifying the middle class, economists say, one must factor in where someone has been financially in the past five years and where he or she expects to be over the next five years.
The rise in middle-class "self-definition" was spurred by politicians themselves, particularly the Democrats, who want to tax the rich and give a break to the middle class. With so much focus on the middle class - House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington uttered the phrase six times in his State of the Union rebuttal last month - it's no wonder that most Americans want to feel a part of that group.
In his State of the Union speech, President Bush mentioned the middle class only once.
"That was the single biggest flaw" in the speech, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
Mr. Phillips suggests that Bush may have been making a bow to the right wing by avoiding mention of class (though he did so implicitly by talking about values, family, and his wife, Barbara). Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp said in a recent speech that he dislikes discussion of middle-class tax relief because "it splits us from each other."
Bush may have a hard time avoiding class warfare in the run-up to November. Congress is likely to pass a budget that includes both a middle-class tax cut and a tax hike for the rich, a combination Bush doesn't like. If he vetoes such a package, the Democrats have an issue: an upper-class president who is only looking out for his rich friends. Bush's recent "gee whiz" encounter with 12-year-old grocery-store technology - the laser-scanner at checkout - doesn't help, reinforcing the idea that he doesn't un derstand how the average guy lives.
Ed Goeas, a Republican political consultant, says the Democrats are taking a risk in promising so much to a middle class that is so broadly defined. "In reality, they may be doing themselves long-range damage," says Mr. Goeas. "When people see who actually benefits from a tax cut, it won't be the 94 percent" that define themselves as middle class.
The same holds true for the Democrats' tax-the-rich plan: The middle class is so broadly defined that some of the "rich" who would pay higher taxes may view themselves as middle class, he says.
Whether the Democrats' resort to "class warfare" wins them a bigger majority in Congress, or even the presidency, is open to speculation.
"The Democrats' first job was to eliminate the negative image as the party that represents the cultural fringes and minorities," says Phillips. m not sure they're changing anything that was working too well."
Phillips quotes Bush's late campaign manager Lee Atwater: "The way to win a presidential race against the Republicans is to develop the class-warfare issue, as Dukakis did at the end."