In both conventions, candidates talked to the middle class without listening
Throughout the last two weeks of political conventions, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and a vast array of surrogates accused their opponents of gutting the American middle class.
Paul Ryan and Bill Clinton did it blatantly. Michelle Obama and Ann Romney did it subtly. And all speakers tried to portray themselves as in touch with the middle class, from the Romneys eating "lots of pasta and tuna fish" to Barack Obama's proudest possession being "a coffee table he'd found in a dumpster."
In the process, though, both parties gave politically skewed definitions of the middle class, simplistically blamed each other for its struggles and presented pat solutions for the complex problems it faces.
In Republican oratory, the middle class consists of small-business owners who are being crushed by taxes, regulation and a bloated government. In truth, only about 11 percent of American heads-of-household are self-employed.
In Democratic speechifying, the middle class is made up of hard-working teachers, police officers and union members being laid off by miserly Republicans. Yet those Americans, however hard they work, depend on successful businesses and banks for their prosperity.
In reality, the middle class is a dizzyingly complex demographic. It includes the 50 percent of Americans, for example, who work for large companies with more than 500 employees. And it includes drillers and farmers in North Dakota who are collecting hefty paychecks and cashing in on bumper crops in the state, which has a 3 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in the nation.
The middle class is not in free-fall, as some Republicans argued. And the middle class is not the country's sole economic engine, as Democrats suggested. Overall, the American middle class today is struggling to surmount torpid wages, global competition for jobs, low home values and spiraling healthcare and education costs. The middle class is stagnant.
What follows is the first of several efforts to sort through Republican and Democratic portrayals, pronouncements and promises for the middle class. More will follow between now and Nov. 6.
TAX CUTS FOR ALL
In his acceptance speech, Romney said Obama had raised taxes on the middle class. And multiple Obama surrogates - including Vice-President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren - said that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class by $2,000. All of their statements were misleading.
Since taking office, Obama has, in fact, cut middle-class tax rates. Romney, though, was probably referring to the $960-$1200 annual penalty that an estimated 3 million middle-class Americans who fail to obtain health insurance will be expected to pay under Obamacare. In its ruling upholding the healthcare law, the Supreme Court declared the penalty a tax. Definitions of the middle class vary, but most experts view it as the middle 50-60 percent of Americans, or roughly 114 million working age adults. The penalty will apply to approximately 3 million of roughly 57 million middle-class Americans.
Biden's and Warren's claim that Romney will increase middle-class taxes is pure speculation. Romney has promised that he will cut tax rates across the board by 20 percent but not reduce overall tax revenues in the process. Independent experts have said it will be extremely difficult for Romney to achieve this goal, and the Republican nominee has declined to give specifics. But the New York Times notes that Romney could decide, instead of increasing middle-class taxes, to add to the deficit, take away preferential rates on savings and investments or make smaller cuts to marginal tax rates. And Romney has repeatedly promised not to raise middle-class taxes.