So far, the focus groups on CNN and MSNBC and even Fox indicate that for many swing and undecided voters, Joe the plumber, who was the star of last night's debate (along with Bob Schieffer, who was far and away the best moderator of the four we've seen during the general election,) might not be the best poster boy for John McCain's economic principles. Of course, conservatives went gaga over Joe Wurzelbacher, the Ohio man who (totally, completely spontaneously ... ahem ...) confronted Barack Obama at a campaign event about his tax policies, and how they would affect Joe if he went ahead with the purchase of the plumbing business he works for, which by toooootal coincidence, just happens to cost around $250,000 -- the cut-off under Obama's tax plan. The full video below:
For righties, Joe became an instant symbol of can-do capitalism being clobbered by the big, bad government, and Obama's retort that he wants to give tax breaks to people who don't have a quarter million dollars to invest and to "spread the wealth around" was the blood curdling shriek of socialism.
But here's the problem for the right: most Americans, who are struggling and some cases freaking completely out in this dismal economy, wouldn't mind spreading a little wealth around. The idea of everybody doing well isn't socialism to most people, it's opportunity to get ahead and to achieve (and hang onto) the American dream. The reason people felt good about the 90s was not that rich people and investors made money, but that for a time, it seemed that anyone could become a millionaire. The Larry Kudlow philosophy of the rich gwaking up all the baubles they can and to hell with the rest of us was fine for the 1980s, when "Dallas" and "Dynasty" were hot. Now? I doubt very many people are even watching "Cribs."
A very wise man (named Chris Matthews) said four years ago during a presentation for members of the media at Miami's American Airlines Arena (back when I was at NBC 6,) told us that "politics is about where you put the wedge in."If the wedge winds up between the middle class and the poor, such that the middle identifies more with the rich, even aspirationally, Republicans win. But when the wedge is between the rich and the middle class, such that those in the middle feel like they're getting poorer, Democrats win. This year, I think it's clear where the wedge is.
Which brings me back to Joe.
CNN sent a reporter to watch the debate with a family who had recently had their home foreclosed, and they were sour on Joe, mainly because they couldn't relate to a guy who's got $250,000 available to buy a company during these hard times (the father in the family, who is a Republican, also said he couldn't relate to McCain, because the Senator "has seven houses." Actually, I think it's at least eight ...)
In any event, let's take a closer look at Joe's story. First, his estimated earnings. From the Department of Labor:
Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are among the highest paid construction occupations. Median hourly earnings of wage and salary plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters were $20.56. The middle 50 percent earned between $15.62 and $27.54. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $12.30, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $34.79. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters were:
Natural gas distribution
Nonresidential building construction
Plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors
Utility system construction
Meanwhile, the median hourly wage for all American workers was $15.10. That's not to say that people like Joe are "rich." I'd actually call $20 an hour middle class. But at that wage level, Joe would be in line for an Obama tax cut next year.
If, on the other hand, he were to earn $250,000 a year plumbing, that would put him in the top 1 percent -- that's ONE percent, of all American earners (and probably the top .0003% of plumbers.) That may not make a person rich, either, but in times like these, it sure ain't poor.
Second, if Joe buys a business that earns $250,000, I can't imagine he'd be paying himself all, or even most of that, which means his own income would again fall within the 95 percent of Americans Obama would give a tax cut.
Third, in order for Joe to buy that business, if that's what he truly intends to do, he's gonna need more than $250K. As former Los Angeles Daily News columnist and post-newsroom budget cuts blogger, Steve Young points out:
... If we’re talking a business that is bottom lining at $250K, a standard business acquisition falls into the 4 to 1 investment area, which would call for Joe
is buying a business that is making a profit of exactly $250K, the Obama tax break minimum. A normal business acquisition falls into the 4 to 1 investment area, which would call for Joe to come up with $1,000,000 to purchase his $250K business. If that plumbing business had assets like trucks, equipment and offices, the cost could be far more.
Add to that Wurzelbacher doesn’t appear in the Toledo Yellow Pages listings, yet has been able to put together at least a million to invest, especially in these dire economic times, you begin to wonder whether Joe is a plumber or did someone in the McCain campaign find him in central casting?
Team McCain might want to back off from the new tack that "America didn't become great by spreading the wealth around," which he added to the candidate's stump speech today. Americans don't want to hear that the rich shouldn't pay more taxes, or that big corporations paying their executives tens, or even hundreds of millions of dollars, shouldn't have to provide basic healthcare coverage for their employees. Right wingers may like being hectored about tax cuts by talk radio hosts who sign $400 million contracts, get doped up on prescription pills in their Palm Beach mansions and fly around in private jets, but the rest of us are just not that stupid.
UPDATE: Turns out our friend Joe the Plumber has no plumbing license ... (and he insists he's no Matt Damon, either. Here's his actual quote (not making this up):
"I’m a flash in the pan, I’m not a megastar," Wurzelbacher said. "I’m not Matt Damon. I’m not any of those guys who have droves of women and men who want to be like them, that say 'Yeah, I’ll vote for him, because Matt Damon said so'."
Good to know!
UPDATE 2: Okay, you can't make this stuff up. A winger blogger close to the McCain campaign (or so he says,) claims that Joe the Plumber is related to none other than Charles Keating:
John McCain did great tonight in the debate. But every time John mentioned “Joe the Plumber,” some of us in the campaign banged our heads against the wall. If Steve Schmidt had any hair left, I hear he would have been pulling it out tonight. He reportedly screamed at John’s debate prep team tonight (out of earshot of reporters, of course). “You idiots - he’s related to Charles Keating… of the Keating Five scandal!” They thought they had a real live Joe Six-Pack who’s spurned Barack Obama’s tax plan. But what they forgot to do was check on Joe Wurzelbacher’s background.
Does any of this make Joe the Plumber a bad guy? Of course not. In fact, after that ill-fated night at the Watergate, he may finally be giving plumbers a good name. But at a debate where John goes full bore on Obama for guilt-by-association with William Ayers (and dodges a bullet by Obama not mentioning Keating Five), the press is going to bring it back front and center by midday tomorrow once they delve deeper into the most popular plumber in America.
UPDATE 2: It also turns out Joe, who wasn't at that rally by accident (he told ABC News he was contacted by the McCain campaign and "asked to show up at a rally...") doesn't have to worry about a tax increase under an Obama presidency, he has to worry about getting Wesley Sniped by the IRS because he doesn't pay his taxes.
UPDATE 3: A DailyKos diarist does some digging on Central Casting Joe:
Wurzelbacher had already met McCain, and per his story saw Obama walking through his neighborhood while he was out, and he walked over to get involved as he "always wanted to ask these guys a question and really corner them." On Obama’s answers to his questions, old ‘Joe The Plumber’ felt "unfortunately I still got a tap dance ... almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr."
It certainly made for good anecdotal reference. And the post debate interview made great RNC spin.
Yet something there seemed a bit too standard issue FOX News to me.
So after after some digging I found that Joe is indeed a registered Republican. No surprise.
But then I began wondering if old Joe The Plumber communicated this to the McCain campaign? The McCain camp, I’m sure, would see this as a wonderful way to play off Joe as a common connection during the debaters, and someone who was presumed by many (or at least played up to be) to be the quintessential uncommitted or independent voter in this middle American battleground state. Can you say "shill?"
It turns out that Joe’s dad is reported to be a heavy contributor to the GOP. Maybe Joe’s not quite such an independent voice after all. But again no surprise, this is America the polarized.
An unrelated final note, Joe it seems was at least accused of domestic violence by his first wife Jennifer according to papers filed in their divorce in Tucson back in 1997. Part of the court costs included the County’s charges for the Battered Women’s Shelter. http://apps.co.lucas.oh.us/...
Well, Joe’s just a regular guy all right. All the same fallibilities. And even the same pre-conceived allegiances. Nothing special.