WASHINGTON — JUST WHEN it looked as if the middle class had permanently lost its voice, along came Danny Rostenkowski as born-again Democrat.
The chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee sprang a bill that actually hit the rich harder than working stiffs. After months of doing his pal George Bush's laundry, a lightbulb went on. Danny returned to the religion of his fathers. The storm his epiphany provoked showed how overdue it was. Democrats rushed to sign on, even senators. Corrupted by PAC money and cowed by Reagan, these guys had forsaken the people who elected them to join the Gipper in shifting the tax burden from the rich to the middle class. Now they were glad to be shown the way home.
Not enough of them to carry the Senate, of course. Just the threat of veto cowed the timid. Others felt the weight of statesmanship on their shoulders. "You can't talk to senators," Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) quipped. "They're too busy ironing their togas."
Still Rosty had started something. After demonstrating saintly patience through 10 years of economic discrimination, the middle class finally is fed up. There's hunger for a fairer system, and some Democrats are sniffing it. High time, too. The transfer of wealth under Reagan was mindboggling. The richest 1 percent's after-tax income, adjusted for inflation, went up $186,000 -- from $214,000 in 1980 to $400,000 in 1990, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In the same period, the poorest fifth saw their incomes fall 5 percent, while the middle fifth gained just $660, or less than 3 percent.
As a result, the 2.5 million souls who make up our richest 1 percent had almost as much total after-tax income as the 100 million in the bottom 40 percent.
This dramatic growth of the gap between the rich and everybody else resulted largely from loss of factory jobs under an overvalued dollar and from Reagan's piling up Social Security payroll taxes while slashing income-tax rates.
Why the middle class suffered it all so meekly is a mystery. For one thing, Reagan shifted the focus away from tax fairness with a specious and thinly veiled racial assault on welfare programs and the like. For another, times were good and never mind that we were paying for the party with money borrowed abroad.
With recession looming (or already here), the party's over. The long-deferred fairness argument is beginning, and Republicans are in panic. President Bush tried the old right-wing attack on inner Washington. (What a mockery. No one ever wormed up the bureaucracy half as tenaciously as insider George.) His aides argued falsely that middle America would be hit harder by the House's deferral of indexing than by the Senate's doubling of the gas tax.
House Leader Bob Michel mourned: "We've heard the savage cry of class warfare," a lament Republicans raise whenever anyone notes what they've done to the middle class. The problem is we've had class warfare for 10 years, Michel, and your guys won it, going away.
If Democrats want to be relevant in the 90s, they'll scramble on to the fairness issue. Unless they represent the middle class, working people will find someone else to do it.