Robert Menendez wants everyone to know he's not a wealthy guy. He has this little studio apartment two blocks from the Capitol. He drove the same blue Buick "clunker" for ten years. He says that "materialistic things are not important to me."
But the poverty plea from this New Jersey Democratic congressman in the January 5 Washington Post Magazine doesn't impress most Americans. Menendez insists, "My whole income is my congressional salary. I don't have any other sources of income, you know, so I watch it." This year, that translates to a paltry $155,000. This is the fourth straight year that congressional salaries have risen. (Under a bizarre 1989 law only Congress could envision, congressmen receive automatic cost-of-living salary increases unless they vote to reject them.)
By Democratic Party standards, every penny-watching Washington legislator should be considered a member of the pampered super-rich. After all, every one of them has an income in the top five percent of American households. But just days after his Post Magazine act, Menendez was out accusing President Bush of targeting his tax cut at the filthy rich, as if he weren't one of them: "The Democratic plan helps all Americans, and the president's plan helps mostly wealthy Americans." In the party's national radio address a few weeks ago, Menendez insisted Democrats want to help "working individuals and families, not more in the hands of those fortunate enough to only have to worry about how much their fortune has diminished."
The Menendez mendacity is to be expected. This is what Democrats in Washington do. But should it be equally predictable to find that the tone and tenor of the media's coverage of the President's economic stimulus plan carries an identical obsession with the "unfairness" of tax cuts? That supposedly rich people are somehow unjustly given the "gift" of their own money, which will "cost" the government in a "massive" and "controversial" payout?
By the liberal media's standards, the goal must not be how best to stimulate the economy, but how to strike the best pose as the champion of the little guy, regardless of its economic effect. If it's ridiculous for congressmen to grouse about the "super-rich," imagine Peter Jennings sitting on top of his personal mountain of cash kvetching that the Bush plan "has unleashed a very political debate about whether it will stimulate the economy or just further enrich the wealthy."
Jennings is right that the debate is very political. But the condescension sounds a little like the head of a rap music label complaining that the music is a little coarse. It's the media that are fueling - and loving - this political debate,. A policy debate will not do. It's too boring. It's bad television. It makes an anchorman's head hurt.
That's a shame. The media should host a serious debate, matching economists and accountants and philosophers. They should explore instead of just parrot the left's proposition that it's the government's job to correct the "maldistribution" of income. They should evaluate how New Zealand's economy performed after it ended the double taxation of corporate income in 1988. There's so much they could do to return not just civility but intelligence to the discussion. Instead, they choose to construct a partisan bomb, indoctrinating the media consumer into the view that Republicans favor the top one percent of society at the expense of everyone else.
So Harry Smith of CBS hounds Commerce Secretary Don Evans: "By one calculation, the wealthiest one percent of taxpayers would get 47 percent of the benefit. How would that stimulate the economy?" Smith's question is designed not to elicit an answer, but to leave a negative impression. It says: Try getting that stain off your shirt, Mr. Secretary.
While Smith and everyone else in the media crib their economic numbers from liberal outfits like the Brookings Institution, a more conservative analysis from a group like the Tax Foundation rarely sees the light of day. Why? Because it balances the argument that the rich will benefit disproportionately from most tax cuts with the natural counterpoint that the rich are pay a very disproportionate part of that tax burden. The top five percent of taxpayers - that loaded fraction that includes most of Washington officialdom - pays 56.5 percent of the tax burden.
Wouldn't it be nice if the media remembered that old proposition that the news should be balanced? Instead, liberal politics rule, so like a broken record, the "news" media are again warning Americans they're about to be shafted by conservatism being enacted. And if Americans making $50,000 a year object to being considered evil mustache-twirling examples of the "wealthy," perhaps they should call Robert Menendez or Peter Jennings - collect. It's not like those two can't afford it.