Conservative bloggers and websites have been flogging it, and now John McCain's campaign has put its imprimatur on it: a newly disclosed radio interview in which Democratic rival Barack Obama talks about the redistribution of wealth.
The interview, first reported by the Drudge Report, was with a Chicago radio station while he was an Illinois state senator on Sept. 6, 2001.
Obama is talking about the victories of the civil rights movement, and says, "You know if you look at the victories and the failures of the Civil Rights movement and its litigation strategy in the Court, I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples so that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order as long as I could pay for it I would be okay. But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society.... And one of the I think the tragedies of the Civil Rights movement was because the Civil Rights movement became so court focused I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change and in some ways we still suffer from that."
The entire context of the interview isn't clear, and the sentiment isn't all that different from Martin Luther King Jr., who after the voting rights and other accomplishments of the 1960s civil rights movement moved toward greater emphasis on poverty and economic justice.
But McCain's campaign is jumping on it as part of the assault on Obama's remark to the famous Joe the plumber in Ohio that with America so economically troubled, it might be good to spread the wealth.
"The American people continue to learn more about Barack Obama. Now we know that the slogans 'change you can believe in' and 'change we need' are code words for Barack Obama's ultimate goal: 'redistributive change.' In a previously uncovered interview from September 6, 2001, Barack Obama expressed his regret that the Supreme Court hadn't been more 'radical' and described as a 'tragedy' the Court's refusal to take up 'the issues of redistribution of wealth.' No wonder he wants to appoint judges that legislate from the bench – as insurance in case a unified Democratic government under his control fails to meet his basic goal: taking money away from people who work for it and giving it to people who Barack Obama believes deserve it. Europeans call it socialism, Americans call it welfare, and Barack Obama calls it change," McCain senior policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin said in a statement.
McCain, himself, mentioned the old radio interview at a rally this afternoon in Dayton, Ohio, coining a new name for Obama.
"That is what change means for Barack the Redistributor: It means taking your money and giving it to someone else. He believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs. He is more interested in controlling wealth than in creating it, in redistributing money instead of spreading opportunity. I am going to create wealth for all Americans, by creating opportunity for all Americans."
In Pottsville, Pa., tonight, McCain parried further:
"Senator Obama is running to be redistributionist-in-chief. I'm running to be commander-in-chief. Senator Obama is running to spread the wealth. I'm running to create more wealth. Senator Obama is running to punish the successful. I'm running to make everyone successful."
The Obama campaign is responding by sending around a report from Politico in which Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor who is advising Obama, downplays the remarks as law professor-speak.
"Sunstein argued that Obama is discussing redistribution in a relatively narrow legal context: The discussion in the 1970s of whether the Supreme Court would create the right to a social safety net -- to things like education and welfare. He also noted that in the interview, Obama appears to express support for the court's rejection of that line of argument, saying instead that the civil rights movement should aim for the same goals through legislative action.
"What the critics are missing is that the term 'redistribution' didn’t mean in the Constitutional context equalized wealth or anything like that. It meant some positive rights, most prominently the right to education, and also the right to a lawyer," Sunstein said. "What he’s saying – this is the irony of it – he’s basically taking the side of the conservatives then and now against the liberals."
UPDATE: The Obama campaign, itself, directly responded with a statement from spokesman Bill Burton:
“This is a fake news controversy drummed up by the all too common alliance of Fox News, the Drudge Report and John McCain, who apparently decided to close out his campaign with the same false, desperate attacks that have failed for months. In this seven year old interview, Senator Obama did not say that the courts should get into the business of redistributing wealth at all. Americans know that the real choice in this election is between four more years of Bush-McCain policies that redistribute billions to billionaires and big corporations and Barack Obama’s plan to help the middle class by giving tax relief to 95% of workers and companies that create new jobs here in America. That’s the change we need, and no amount of eleventh-hour distractions from the McCain campaign will change that.”
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.