Election 2008

Madalyn Ruggiero/AP
Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher

‘Joe the Plumber’ Movement Buoys the McCain Campaign

October 22, 2008 05:07 PM
by Liz Colville
A new advertisement from the McCain campaign makes clear that Joe the Plumber is not just a man, but a movement, and could help the Republican candidate get a boost in the home stretch of the presidential campaign.

Traction in Ohio

With some polls suggesting that Ariz. Sen. John McCain is gaining ground in the key state of Ohio, it appears the ‘Joe the Plumber’ movement is proving effective. It began with Sen. McCain’s mention of the aspiring small business owner Samuel “Joe” Wurzelbacher, a critic of Ill. Sen. Barack Obama’s “spread the wealth” tax plan—during the third presidential debate. It has generated momentum as McCain seeks to identify Joe and others like him as potentially hindered by Obama’s plan.

Politicker reports that when Rep. Rob Portman, a Republican from Cincinnati, addressed McCain volunteers in Ohio on Oct. 21, he emphasized what he saw as a discrepancy between the amount of money the Obama camp is spending and what Americans are actually saying. “‘Joe the Plumber’ put a face on what a lot of undecided voters are worried about, which is: is he going to raise my taxes, is he going to hurt my small-business job?”

Ohio may be as convinced of the Republican message as it was in 2004, when President Bush won the state by a margin of 23 percent over Democratic candidate John Kerry, The Times of London notes. “[T]he prosperity from years of high growth has not trickled down to the rust-belt where free trade deals such as those signed by President Clinton are blamed for wiping out jobs. Many voters had become more motivated by social issues…, apparently giving up on politicians ever improving their precarious livelihoods.”

But in other, usually Republican-leaning states, like Indiana, the economy is taking center stage, and Sen. Obama “appears to be cutting through all the clutter and connecting with voters,” according to the Times.

A counterpoint to that claim is the McCain team’s new television ad, “Sweat Equity,” which claims that Sen. Obama “raises taxes on seniors (and) hard-working families to give welfare to those who pay none.”

Fact-checking site PolitiFact analyzed the ad in detail and concluded that its statements were “misleading.” It asserts that Sen. Obama’s tax plan applies only to those seniors and families who make $200,000 (for a single filer) or $250,000 (for a family) a year, and that the plan is “not welfare.”

Sen. Obama told Joe the Plumber that he would “spread the wealth around” with his tax policy. The phrase has been repeatedly brought up by the McCain campaign, which “has gone so far as to liken Obama’s philosophy to ‘socialism,’” Fox News reports.

The implication is that Sen. Obama’s plan will grow the amount the government pays out as “giveaways” and will ultimately hurt the economy. The Republican candidate wants to lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans, believing this will stimulate spending and investment, create jobs and fuel the economy. (See “Election Issues: Economy” for a comparison of the candidates’ economic plans.)

Opinion & Analysis: The ‘Joe the Plumber’ Phenomenon

Wayne Burris, a mechanic from Ohio, interviewed by the Times of London following the third presidential debate, said he had recently learned more about Sen. Obama and was encouraged: “He grew up poor, he worked hard for what he got, he definitely ain’t a rich man.”

But Amy McComas, a warehouse clerk, told the Times that while she was going to vote for Sen. Obama, she wasn’t sure it made very much difference: “[T]here is so much involved, so many people, that it won’t matter and it won’t change much.”

In CQ Politics, Madison Powers argues that the McCain campaign may have successfully shaped Sen. Obama’s identity for Americans, but that “the public is not in the mood for fairy tales when the economy is so much at risk.” Sen. Obama’s tax plan, Powers says, “tilts more in the direction of those who have fewer resources and face greater risk of economic ruin in a fragile economy.”
But for many Americans, this tax plan could be seen as incongruous to freedom, to individuality and the American Dream. Joe the Plumber “symbolizes an optimistic, individualistic vision of America sorely lacking—until recently—in McCain’s rhetoric,” argues Jonah Goldberg in the National Review. “Sen. Obama’s vision is “collectivist,” Goldberg writes, while Sen. McCain’s, as represented in people like Joe the Plumber, is “individualistic.”

While Sen. Obama’s “spread the wealth” philosophy “is a sincere and significant expression of his worldview, with roots stretching back to his church and his days as a community organizer,” Goldberg observes, “[m]illions of Americans don’t share this vision.”

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