By any standard, the fury directed at President Obama by his own party this week has been jaw-dropping. Forget that the object of their rage was "The One" who just two years ago sent thrills down the legs of everyone to the left of Michael Bloomberg. Forget that he was the leader who was going to usher in a new golden age of liberal gigantism. Consider only that Barack Obama is the sitting president and leader of the Democratic Party.
"F--- Obama," one congressional Democrat is reported to have snarled during a meeting to discuss the tax plan deal worked out with Republicans. Others in the room joined in a chant: "Just say no. Just say no." Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the Senate's lone explicit socialist, described the deal as "an absolute disaster and an insult to the vast majority of the American people." Sanders promised to do "everything possible" to defeat the plan and staged a mini-filibuster -- speaking for more than eight hours on the Senate floor -- to dramatize his anger.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pronounced herself "just staggered by the enormity of this package." And Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., described the compromise as "border(ing) on moral recklessness."
Commentators and activists were equally incensed. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee: "There is zero tolerance among progressives for Democrats caving on an issue where 98 percent of the American people would be on their side."
The sense of outrage among Democrats seems to arise from the genuine conviction that extending the current tax structure is both morally and politically wrong.
On the politics, it's hard to see how they reach this conclusion. Speaker Pelosi could have scheduled a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts before the election. That she declined is evidence that a significant number of Democrats feared that a vote to raise taxes on anyone -- even just "the rich" -- might not serve them well back home. Have the angry Democrats who are convinced that this compromise was political poison looked at polls? According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 69 percent of Americans support the compromise package.
Democrats' rage at the rich blinds them to the true views of the American people. William Voegeli, writing in Commentary, took note of a 2010 ballot measure in liberal Washington State. The measure would have imposed an income tax only on individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $400,000 (about 1.2 percent of Washingtonians). Sixty-five percent of voters said no. Voegeli suggests that people of moderate incomes may reject the principle that "rich people should be forced to surrender some of their wealth, just because they are deemed to have too much," because it will eventually be used to "justify policies that force non-rich people to surrender some of their wealth, just because."
But there was another message that Democrats appear to have missed. It was delivered on Nov. 2, and could be called the Biggest Rejection of a Majority Party's policies in living memory. Voters were not unaware that Democrats wished to increase taxes on "the rich" -- and yet they emphatically tossed them aside anyway. Are we dealing with a psychological problem here? Are Democrats projecting the anger they feel toward the ungrateful voters onto their own leader, who is only facing political reality?
As for the moral argument -- that the undeserving rich should be separated from their obscene profits -- well, it isn't moral at all. It isn't motivated by concern for the poor or even for the middle class, because increasing taxes on the rich only makes it less likely that lower-income people will be hired.
Nor can it be justified by reference to the inequity of the current system. Our tax code is so heavily progressive that the top 5 percent of income earners pay 60 percent of income taxes. The top 1 percent pay more than 40 percent of income taxes. In fact, the top 1 percent pay more than the bottom 95 percent combined. Our tax code is the most progressive among OECD nations. And it's worth repeating that the rich pay so much not just because they earn so much, but also because they pay a far larger percentage of what they earn.
Though it drives Democrats crazy, most Americans seem to have a visceral sense that people are entitled to success and that fairness amounts to ensuring equal opportunity, not equal results. And finally, a practical consideration: If removing the uncertainty about tax increases boosts the economy's recovery, the primary beneficiaries will not be the rich, but the currently unemployed -- Sanders, Feinstein, Landrieu and the rest notwithstanding.