WASHINGTON -- With the Clinton White House intensifying its attacks on the Republican "Contract with America," the country is being treated once again to competing accusations of waging "class warfare."
It's a refrain heard in politics ever since the days of the robber barons of industry on one side and the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the other. In simpler days, when there were fewer rich and more poor in the American economic mix, "class warfare" was easier to understand and recognize.
But to a considerable degree because of the success of the social programs of FDR and successor Democratic presidents as well as economic prosperity, class warfare became somewhat muddled with the growth of a broad middle class.
Most Americans today consider themselves in the middle class and probably believe if there is any class warfare going on, it's against them.
The complaint against welfare today is grounded in the belief that the poor get all the help from Washington and the middle class gets zilch.
That notion, indeed, is at the core of President Clinton's self-identification as a New Democrat -- not a bleeding heart of the Hubert Humphrey stripe but a Democrat just as concerned about the middle class as he is about the poor. His "middle-class bill of rights" reflects that view, as does the moderate tax cut he proposes as part of it.
But the Republicans, too, insist that they are concerned about the middle class, not just the wealthy who seem nevertheless always to come out as the chief beneficiaries of GOP economic proposals.
They call their approach enlarging the pie so everybody can have a bigger slice; the Democrats deride it as the same old trickle-down economics in which the rich take such a large slice that there is little left to trickle down to the middle class and poor.
Just who is in the middle class seems to depend on whether you're in it or not. Americans living in poverty look upon middle-income Americans as well-off. Those on the higher economic rungs have a distorted view of the same people.
Take, for example, the comment of freshman Republican Rep. Sonny Bono, the one-time California entertainer, in defending the "Contract with America" tax cut that would give a $500 credit for each child of parents earning up to $200,000 a year.
Quoth Bono on NBC News' "Meet the Press," speaking of those who squawked about that ceiling:
". . . The other side, I don't think they clearly understand the middle class; $200,000 isn't really that much. If you make $200,000, you probably get $100,000. If you've got a few kids, those are not high dollars today. They used to be, but they're not today."
Maybe they're not for Sonny, nor for Cher for that matter. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median average income in the United States is $39,900.
In any event, the simpler old equation of class warfare as the defenders of the rich against the defenders of the poor won't do any longer.
During and right after the Great Depression, the have-nots were a substantial constituency that the Democrats tapped into with great political success. But today most voters are haves to one degree or another, with the poor notoriously absent at the polls on Election Day.
The real class warfare these days is the effort on the one hand by Democrats to garner support from the middle class by painting the Republicans as slavish servants of the rich, and on the other by Republicans to cozy up to the middle class by painting the Democrats as slavish servants of the minority poor.
As a result, you see President Clinton not simply criticizing Republican tax cuts as shameless kowtowing to the wealthy, but offering tax cuts of his own for the middle class, at a time in which the deficit is going through the roof and no tax cuts can really be defended.
Vice President Al Gore calls the Republican contract "Robin Hood in reverse . . . Take from hard-working middle-income American families and give it to the wealthiest."
But Robin Hood, if we remember correctly, took from the rich and gave to the poor, not the middle class. Some class warfare.