A Brief, Recent History of the GOP’s ‘Class Warfare’ Gambit

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Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican response to Obama's Buffet Tax has involved the repeated invocation of the phrase "class warfare." "Class warfare may make for good politics, but it makes for rotten economics," explained Representative Paul Ryan. It's everywhere you turn, including today's Drudge Report — which, as the Atlantic's Elspeth Reeve points out, engaged in a bit of concurrent class warfare of its own by highlighting Michelle Obama's expensive jewelry. Others who have used the term recently include Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, Larry Kudlow, even Mark Penn.

Today, a video of liberal favorite and Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren responding to the class-warfare charge went viral.

The "class warfare" charge is hardly a new one, though. It's been around as a Republican rhetorical feint at least since Clinton and the 1993 tax hikes. That year, it was so much in the ether that The Wall Street Journal's editorial page ran a series called The Class Warfare Economy, featuring a logo of a guillotine. Forbes ran an article urging the wealthy to leave the country, or else! The term emerged again during the Bush tax cuts, and now, in the Obama era, it's back with a vengeance.

So what IS class warfare, these days?

Last week, Lindsay Graham offered this definition: "When you pick one area of the economy and you say we're going to tax those people because most people are not those people, that's class warfare." In July, Glenn Beck said it was a proposal to eliminate corporate-jet tax breaks. Rick Perry took the chance to make the "warfare" bit more literal on the same jet issue, in August: "This president is trying to engage in class warfare and shooting high-powered bullets at people who have corporate jets, but the bullets pass through those wealthy people and hit blue-collar workers who rely upon those wealthy individuals who risk the capital to create the jobs."

In 2009, Representative Zach Wamp of Tennessee took a simpler approach, defining class warfare as "punishing success." In 2008, John McCain used the term not to defend the rich rich, as it's been used lately, but to defend the middle class: "In other words, we're going to take Joe's [the Plumber’s] money, give it to Senator Obama and let him spread the wealth around. The whole premise of Senator Obama's plans are class warfare."

"Class warfare" is also a Boehner favorite: "Class warfare isn’t leadership," Boehner said of Obama's plan. And yet! Boehner, like us, is bored by clichés. "Instead of resorting to tired old class warfare rhetoric, pitting one working American against another, the president and the Democratic leadership should start working with us this week to ensure a fair and open debate to pass legislation to cut spending and freeze tax rates without any further delay," he said in 2010.

What's that about tired rhetoric?