If he is, then so is John McCain. But the charge is just a racial dog whistle anyway. Can you say “welfare queen”?John McCain, struggling to catch up with Barack Obama in the last days of the campaign, has finally found a theme for a campaign that until now has lacked one. He is running for the White House to defend capitalism against socialism. Because Barack Obama in an unguarded moment to Joe the Plumber said he wanted to “spread the wealth,” McCain and Palin are painting the senator from Illinois as a “redistributionist” or “redistributor” (they can’t decide on the appropriate term), a subversive and sinister figure who is peddling “socialism.” It’s not enough for McCain to run against Obama as though he were George McGovern. McCain is trying to equate Obama with Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, the socialist candidates for the presidency of yesteryear. Never mind that Jonah Goldberg has spent a couple of years denouncing liberal fascism. Fascists last week, progressives like Obama are now socialists. Which is to say, “commies.”
Without exception, all of the policies supported by Obama belong to broad categories of public policies that have been supported, in one form or another, by conservative-libertarian thinkers like Friedman and von Hayek and conservative politicians like Reagan, George W. Bush and McCain himself. The differences between them and Obama are differences of degree, not of kind.
But while this is true it may not matter, if McCain’s last-minute clarion call is really a racial “dog whistle.” The McCain campaign may appear to be debating public philosophy, when in fact it is making a disguised appeal to white racism. If that is the case, then “redistributionist” and “socialist” may be intended to be understood by white swing voters as code words that function the way that “welfare queen” did for the Reagan campaign. A “socialist” or “redistributionist” is a politician who taxes white people like Joe the Plumber and gives money to … you know who.
If this is the tactic, then it might be working. The polls are tightening in the final days of the campaign. Should McCain surprise the pundits and pull off a victory, historians may judge that it was because of his desperate insinuation that white people would be taxed to pay for welfare for Latinos and blacks. And if he should lose, conservative operatives planning for the next cycle may decide that this was the right tactic, pursued too late. Whether he wins or loses, by using “socialist” and “redistributionist” in an environment in which they were likely to be interpreted as racially charged smears, John McCain may have damaged not only his reputation but our society.