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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Obama's Redistribution 'Bombshell'



Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

"In a previously uncovered interview from September 6, 2001, Barack Obama expressed his regret that the Supreme Court hadn't been more 'radical' and described as a 'tragedy' the Court's refusal to take up 'the issues of redistribution of wealth.' No wonder he wants to appoint judges that legislate from the bench."
--McCain economics adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin

With just over a week to go until the election, the McCain campaign is stepping up its efforts to portray Barack Obama as a closet "socialist" bent on implementing a major redistribution of wealth in American society. The Illinois Democrat's remarks to "Joe the Plumber" on "spreading the wealth around" are Exhibit A in the Son of Karl Marx argument. Exhibit B is a newly-discovered interview that Obama gave to a Chicago public radio station back in 2001 in which he mentioned the R-word several times in a generally positive context.

Did Obama really say what the McCain camp says he said?

The Facts

"Obama Bombshell Audio Uncovered. He wants to Radically Reinterpret the Constitution to Redistribute Wealth!!" runs the YouTube headline from the conservative video blog Naked Emperor News. "This video exposes the radical beneath the rhetoric."

On closer inspection, the "bombshell audio" turns out to be a rather wonkish, somewhat impenetrable, discussion of the Supreme Court under Earl Warren. Obama, then a University of Chicago law professor and Illinois state senator, argued that the courts have traditionally been reluctant to get involved in income distribution questions. He suggested that the civil rights movement had made a mistake in expecting too much from the courts -- and that such issues were better decided by the legislative branch of government.

You can read the entire transcript of the interview here, courtesy of Fox News, but here is the passage in which Obama explains that courts are "not very good" at redistributing wealth:

Maybe I am showing my bias here as a legislator as well as a law professor, but you know I am not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. You know the institution just isn't structured that way.... Any of the three of us sitting here could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts. I think that, as a practical matter, that our institutions are just poorly equipped to do it.

In other words, Obama says pretty much the opposite of what the McCain camp says he said. Contrary to the spin put on his remarks by McCain economics adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, he does not express "regret" that the Supreme Court has not been more "radical." Nor does he describe the Court's refusal to take up economic redistribution questions as a "tragedy." He uses the word "tragedy" to refer not to the Supreme Court, but to the civil rights movement:

One of the tragedies of the civil rights movement was that the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think, there was a tendency to lose track of the political and organizing activities on the ground that are able to bring about the coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change.

Holtz-Eakin "read a different interview to the one I heard," said Dennis Hutchinson, a University of Chicago law professor who joined Obama in the panel discussion. "Obama said that redistribution of wealth issues need to be decided by legislatures, not by the courts. That is what a progressive income tax is all about."

While there are sharp differences between the two candidates on economic issues, they both favor a progressive income tax system in which people with high incomes are taxed at a higher rate than people with low incomes.

The Pinocchio Test

With very few exceptions, all American politicians, including both presidential candidates, are in favor of a progressive income tax system and welfare policies (such as Medicare and Social Security) that "redistribute wealth." Barack Obama is more enthusiastic about "spreading the wealth around" than his Republican rival. But that does not make him a "Socialist." The McCain camp is wrong to suggest that the Illinois senator advocated an "wealth redistribution" role for the Supreme Court in his 2001 interview.

Original here

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