For a week or so now, I've been listening to smart conservatives suggest that Obama's "spreading the wealth" remark might really, really hurt him - "talk about playing into the most extreme stereotype of your party, that it is infested with socialists," writes James Pethokoukis - and I have a question: Hasn't Obama been promising to spread the wealth throughout the entire race - a race he seems to be winning at the moment? His signal domestic-policy proposals are 1) a series of tax cuts and tax credits aimed at Americans making less than $250,000 a year and 2) a big-ticket health care reform aimed at expanding coverage; both of these plans, he promises, can be paid for with tax hikes on the richest 5 percent of Americans. This agenda isn't a big socialist secret; it's more or less the basis of his campaign. I suppose it's possible that the "spreading the wealth" turn of phrase throws the redistributionist aspect of Obama's agenda into relief in a way his campaign promises haven't. But it seems to me like a generic restatement of a message that's central to the Democratic campaign: Namely, that the rich haven't paid their fair share under Republican rule, and that people making over $250,000 a year should pay more in taxes so that most Americans can pay less, to the IRS and in health-insurance premiums.
To the extent that the "Joe the Plumber" incident helped McCain, I think, it's because it hearkened back to campaigns of yore, when the GOP was promising lower taxes for guys like Joe Wurzelbacher and the Dems were promising higher taxes. That's the Reagan-era archetype that McCain is trying to tap into by flogging the Wurzelbacher story, and it's a powerful one. But I'm skeptical that the message has the same resonance when you're talking about taxes on a business that Joe the Plumber might own someday, as opposed to taxes on the income that he actually earns this year - where Obama's plan almost certainly lets him keep more cash. And I'm really, really skeptical that Obama's pro-wealth-spreading response to Joe's challenge tells voters anything they didn't already know about the two candidates' proposals and philosophy.