I think it’s totally fair of John McCain to criticize Barack Obama for wanting to spread the wealth around. Indeed, though the “Joe the Plumber” debate hasn’t been the most substantive thing in the world, it’s in the neighborhood of some real issues. Recently, the wealth has gotten more and more concentrated in the hands of the very wealthiest individuals. Many people think it would be a good idea to try to change that and create more broadly shared prosperity. McCain, evidently, disagrees. It’s a good argument to have.
I’ve been puzzled, however, by the willingness of some in the press to refer to Obama’s statement as a “gaffe” as if rather than a contested issue in the political debate this was some kind of no-brainer where most Americans take a strongly pro-inequality view. The data suggest otherwise:
What you see here is that traditionally a large majority of Americans have favored spreading the wealth around. By harping on this point, McCain seems to have succeeded in making his position less unpopular presumably by “educating” Republican partisans that the pro-inequality view is the “right” one. At the same time, he’s succeeded in increasing the salience of a topic on which he draws the short end of a 37–58 split. My sense is that this is traditionally a topic on which conservative politicians have tried — successfully — to remain ambiguous, drawing votes from both a pro-inequality base and also a large egalitarian-minded swing bloc.