America's political debate is converging quickly around one of the most volatile themes in public life: class politics.
It begins this week with a fight over tax policy, but - if the theme takes hold - it could define the terms of the big issues of this year and of the 2004 presidential campaign, from welfare and bankruptcy reform to Medicare and education.
Even before laying out his new economic stimulus plan, President Bush launched a preemptive strike on those who "would like to turn this into class warfare." Some Democrats snatched up the gauntlet. "He's right, but it's Mr. Bush who is waging war on the poor," says Michigan Rep. John Dingell.
Charles Rangel of New York, another senior House Democrat, added: "Never in a time of war have we reduced the tax burden on the most privileged. At the same time ..., we send a disproportionate number of lower- and middle-class kids to fight a war. If this is class warfare, I ask who started it?"
It's a tried theme for Democrats, but not always a successful one. William Jennings Bryan electrified delegates at the 1896 Democratic convention with a withering attack on the GOP for supporting "idle holders of capital" over the "struggling masses." He won the nomination. He lost the election, badly.
Reminding people of class divisions is high-risk politics, and works only in exceedingly bad economic times.
"People appreciate class mobility in this country. They don't see a stratified society, nor do they want one," says Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center. "There is a critique of the Bush economic plan that it tilts to the rich," he adds. "The question is: Does it really resonate with people and make a political difference? It depends on the economy. That perception began to hurt Bush's father only when the economy really started to go south."
Overall, Americans don't blame the rich or hate them for their wealth. "They want to be like them," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. "The democratization of the investment class has made class warfare a moot issue at least for the time being." Union members with 401(k)s are much more likely to vote Republican than those without, he adds.
A recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, conducted Dec 2-8, signals:
• Nearly a majority of Americans believe they pay too much in taxes (49%);44 percent say they are taxed "just right."
• 55 percent favor making the 2001 federal tax cuts permanent; 29 percent oppose that.
• 35 percent want Bush's first tax cuts ramped up to take effect immediately; 53 percent want to keep the original schedule. Acceleration is part of the Bush plan.
• 60 percent of respondents were at least somewhat satisfied with current federal economic policies (before the Bush stimulus package.)
However, there are some indications that an erosion of confidence in the economy is beginning to surface.
"More than 20 percent are concerned that a household member may lose a job. Consumer confidence is the weakest, in December, of the past 25 months of polling," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence in Oradell, N.J.
The prospect that the economy may slump yet further is reviving a debate within the Democratic Party on how far to take rich/poor themes.
Democratic presidential candidates have long emphasized class differences - and economic disparities - on the campaign trail. In 1992, Bill Clinton reached out to middle class voters, talking of "putting people first." In 2000, Al Gore used even more combative rhetoric, with the slogan "the people versus the powerful." Most recently, in announcing his intention to run for president, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards repeatedly presented himself as a champion of "regular people."
But significant differences remain in how forcefully to push such themes. So-called New Democrats, like President Clinton, deliberately downplayed class in framing debates on everything from economic policy to welfare reform.
"We felt very strongly that one should not use class politics or class rhetoric," says Gene Sperling, economic adviser to President Clinton, now at the Council on Foreign Relations. "When we did impose a tax increase for the top 2 percent, we spoke of it not as targeting the well off, but just as the best way to implement a comprehensive deficit reduction plan and the need for mutual sacrifice, particularly among those who could most bear it."
The new House Democratic leadership, led by Nancy Pelosi of California, is taking a strong liberal line in attacking President Bush's tax plan, which they say is a giveaway to the richest 1 percent of the nation. Some party moderates are already uneasy with playing the class card.
"Because we have a very affluent society with the largest middle class in the world, when you start saying 'class warfare,' the majority of people think they are on the other side - and that's the last thing a political party wants," says James Moran (D) of Virginia.
Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee, who contested Ms. Pelosi for the Democratic leadership, says that key groups Democrats are fighting for are those earning less than $125,000 a year. "Democrats are not playing class warfare, just laying out the facts," he says.
These themes are simmering in other debates facing Congress this session:
Welfare reform. The historic 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act is up again this year, after lawmakers deadlocked on its reauthorization in the last session of Congress. Republicans are pushing for increased work requirements (from 30 to 40 hours a week) but Democrats they are not providing enough funding for adequate day care or job training, especially for the hardest-to-employ still on the welfare rolls. Harder economic times may also shift the terms of this debate from work and family values to lack of opportunity.
Aid to the states. A looming $50 billion budget deficit in the 2003 fiscal year is forcing many states to cut back on many of their programs for the poor, including job training, unemployment assistance, and health benefits for poor children or families. Democrats want a large part of any stimulus plan to go directly to the states to support such programs. The Bush plan does not do that.
Prescription drug plan. The Republican plan relies on subsidies and the private insurance market to help seniors pay for prescription drugs. Democrats say that poor people can't afford good insurance; they propose a fixed benefit in the Medicare system.
Minimum wage. Democrats want to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.65. Republicans say the increase will reduce job opportunities for the poor.
Education funding. President Bush is proposing a $1 billion increase to fund the second year of his signature No Child Left Behind act. Democrats say that's $6 billion less than was promised. "The president's first order of business should be education and children, not tax cuts for the wealthiest," says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, a lead sponsor of the bill.
• Staff writer Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.