Wednesday, October 15, 2008

McCain's Stop Gap Solution: Joe The Plumber

The third and final debate of the presidential season had a few memorable moments, but one thing will be remembered above all: John McCain’s obsession with "Joe the Plumber".

Who is Joe the Plumber, exactly?

The Story of Joe the Plumber

The way McCain's campaign has been unraveling of late would make you think that Joe the Plumber is Sen. McCain's imaginary friend, a figment of the old Arizonian's fevered imagination. As it turns out, Joe the Plumber is Joe Wurzelbacher. He was thrust on the main stage of the political season when he approached Sen. Obama at a rally in Toledo, Ohio, and explained to him that he intended to buy a business that makes a little over $250,000 a year, and Obama's tax plan would cost him more in taxes than Sen. McCain's. Obama responded that his philosophy is that spreading the wealth around by raising taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year would benefit everyone in the long run.

McCain snatched on to the story like a school of frenzied piranhas, gnawing it to the bone and consuming the entire evening by speaking directly to Joe the Plumber, and to all Joe the Plumbers out there. By the time the debate was over, I was wondering what the rest of us, the almost three hundred million Americans not named Joe and not engaged in plumbing would do. It felt like we were totally excluded from McCain’s field of vision, set as his mind was on this quasi-mythical figure.

In his rebuttal, Obama explained the difference in how people like Joe the Plumber and Warren Buffett would be taxed. He explained that at this moment in time we should be helping the middle-class and the poor more, and those who are fortunate enough to make a good living should bear a slightly bigger share of the burden.

Obama missed a good opportunity here. What he should have said to Joe instead, and all the plumbers out there, is that if we don't help the middle class and the poor a little, they will learn to do their own plumbing instead of calling Joe the Plumber, bringing him and his business down.

The Class Warfare Meme

McCain spent a considerable amount of time attacking the idea that spreading wealth is bad and that Obama is engaging in class warfare, a favorite refrain of those who belong to the exclusive class of the "have everything" (the true elite, you might call it, as opposed to the mythical, cultural liberal elite).

I was surprised to learn that spreading wealth is a bad thing for Republicans. Wasn't the whole point of trickle-down economics to spread wealth, without government involvement, from the top down? How'd that work out for you, the average American, under Republican presidents?

Larry Bartels, the esteemed political scientist, wrote an article about income distribution and how partisan politics affect it. Let's say it does not reflect well on the claims of trickle-down economics. And Paul Krugman, who just received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, wrote an article in 2006 called The Great Wealth Transfer. In it, he made two very important points:
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the hourly wage of the average American non-supervisory worker is actually lower, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1970. Meanwhile, CEO pay has soared -- from less than thirty times the average wage to almost 300 times the typical worker's pay.
And again...
[T]he statistical evidence shows, unequal societies tend to be corrupt societies. When there are huge disparities in wealth, the rich have both the motive and the means to corrupt the system on their behalf.


Indeed, the gap between rich and poor doesn't just mean that few Americans share in the benefits of economic growth -- it also undermines the sense of shared experience that binds us together as a nation. "Trust is based upon the belief that we are all in this together, part of a 'moral community,' " writes Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who has studied the effects of inequality on trust. "It is tough to convince people in a highly stratified society that the rich and the poor share common values, much less a common fate."

In the end, the effects of our growing economic inequality go far beyond dollars and cents.

Like Warren Buffett said: "There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning."

"I Am Not George Bush"

"If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."

That this was the best line of the debate for John McCain really says how bad a night it was for him.

Obama used kid gloves on McCain when he responded:
[T]he fact of the matter is that if I occasionally have mistaken your policies for George Bush's policies, it's because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people, on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities, you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush.

He could have been much more forceful and said: "John, the only way I know that I am running against you and not George Bush is that I can see you, not him, sitting across the table. But when I look at your policy positions on the economy, healthcare, education, and so forth, I cannot tell the two of you apart."

Obama and Fox News

One of Sen. McCain's main blunders of the evening was going after Sen. Obama on "a budget resolution that increases the taxes on individuals making $42,000 a year."

That was a really foolish thing for him to do, because fact checkers all over the world have already cut that notion to shreds. It is simply false, and Sen. Obama did not miss his chance to point that out:
[T]he notion that I voted for a tax increase for people making $42,000 a year has been disputed by everybody who has looked at this claim that Senator McCain keeps on making.

Even FOX News disputes it, and that doesn't happen very often when it comes to accusations about me.

The Terrorist In The Campaign

Main Entry:
Date: 1795

: the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion

According to the Merriam-Webster definition, which as you see is almost as old as McCain himself, there is not one terrorist in this campaign, but three: William Ayers, and the two Republican candidates. Sen. Obama understands that this is how most Americans have interpreted the incessant attacks that McCain and Palin have been leveling at the association between Sen. Obama and William Ayers.

When Bob Schieffer asked them to explain the negative tone of the campaign, Sen. McCain pulled out the famous "townhall meeting" excuse, saying that if Obama had accepted to meet him in that setting, things wouldn't have gotten ugly. He then accused Sen. Obama of failing to repudiate the statements made by Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who just a yesterday condemned the tone of the Republican campaign as incendiary, and reminiscent of the atmosphere that Lewis himself had lived through during the civil rights battles.

Obama's response was designed to make McCain's blood pressure rise:

The notion, though, that because we're not doing town hall meetings that justifies some of the ads that have been going up, not just from your own campaign directly, John, but 527s and other organizations that make some pretty tough accusations, well, I don't mind being attacked for the next three weeks.

What the American people can't afford, though, is four more years of failed economic policies. And what they deserve over the next four weeks is that we talk about what's most pressing to them: the economic crisis.

Senator McCain's own campaign said publicly last week that, if we keep on talking about the economic crisis, we lose, so we need to change the subject.

At that particular moment, Sen. McCain seemed ready to explode. He didn't, but the anger on his face was so ill-contained that it looked like the chances of him spending the next four years in the White House were dwarfed by the likelihood that he would spend the rest of his life in jail.

But Obama was not done; egged on by Sen. McCain to repudiate Rep. Lewis's statements, he responded coolly (and provokingly):

I mean, look, if we want to talk about Congressman Lewis, who is an American hero, he, unprompted by my campaign, without my campaign's awareness, made a statement that he was troubled with what he was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the Republican reports indicated were shouting, when my name came up, things like "terrorist" and "kill him," and that you're running mate didn't mention, didn't stop, didn't say "Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line."

McCain's response was another lie: "But the fact is that we need to absolutely not stand for the kind of things that have been going on. I haven't."

In fact, there is video to prove that neither Sen. McCain nor his running mate did anything to reprimand those in their audiences that yelled things like "Terrorist!" or "Kill him!", referring to Sen. Obama.

The Moment Obama Nailed The Election

After all the talk about negative attacks, McCain finally resorted to the desperation pitch, the last arrow in his quiver: Obama's connection to William Ayers. McCain said: "But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship."

The response that followed was emblematic of the difference in stature and tone between the old, angry Senator, and his younger, calmer, and intellectually superior opponent:
Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Senator McCain's campaign over the last two or three weeks. This has been their primary focus. So let's get the record straight. Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago.

Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg.

[Emphasis added.]

Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois, the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican, the president of The Chicago Tribune, a Republican-leaning newspaper.

Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that's Mr. Ayers.

But Obama had to yet finish the job, and he did:
Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. If I'm interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or General Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO.

Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House. And I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me.

[Emphasis added.]

Case closed, election over, thank you, Sen. Obama.

Sen. McCain's Evening Unravels

From that moment on, the debate, and possibly the election, unraveled for John McCain.

On health care, Sen. Obama clearly laid out a better plan, dismantling Sen. McCain's numerous misrepresentations one by one. When Sen. McCain ranted about the government mandates and bureaucracy in Obama's plan and prodded his young opponent to name the fine that he would levy on small businesses like Joe the Plumber's, if they failed to provide health care for their employes, he seemed genuinely stunned--scratch that: disgusted--by the answer:
OBAMA: I just described what my plan is. And I'm happy to talk to you, Joe, too, if you're out there. Here's your fine -- zero. You won't pay a fine, because...


OBAMA: Zero, because as I said in our last debate and I'll repeat, John, I exempt small businesses from the requirement for large businesses that can afford to provide health care to their employees, but are not doing it.


In fact, what, Joe, if you want to do the right thing with your employees and you want to provide them health insurance, we'll give you a 50 percent credit so that you will actually be able to afford it

Sen. Obama also dismantled McCain's plan, piece by piece, as follows:
He says he's going to give you all a $5,000 tax credit. That sounds pretty good. And you can go out and buy your own insurance.


And once you're out on your own with this $5,000 credit, Senator McCain, for the first time, is going to be taxing the health care benefits that you have from your employer.

And this is your plan, John. For the first time in history, you will be taxing people's health care benefits.

By the way, the average policy costs about $12,000. So if you've got $5,000 and it's going to cost you $12,000, that's a loss for you.

And Finally, How To Lose Undecided And Moderates

The discussion then moved to Roe v. Wade. No surprises here: Sen. McCain is against legal abortion, Sen. Obama for it. (We need to move away from the standard labels of pro-life and pro-choice, because they are much abused, emotionally loaded, and intellectually dishonest--at least as far as the dichotomy of concept v. reality goes.) So no real surprises here, right? Well...

Obama called for people of good will and different opinions to come together to try and reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions. He also defended his votes in the Illinois legislature that have been misrepresented by McCain's campaign over and over again, and expressed his complete support for "a ban on late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there's an exception for the mother's health and life." The bills under scrutiny did not contain that exception.

McCain's response, which started with the usual condescending attack on Obama's eloquence (read "sophistry"), immediately turned into an incredible pronouncement on the "health of the mother exception":

He's health for the mother [sic]. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.

That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, "health."

[Emphasis, once again, added.]

Now, I don't know about you, but I would be hard pressed to find a person who would consider the "health exception" to abortion an extreme pro-abortion position. If anything, in fact, I'd say that most people who are not rabid anti-abortion militants would make exceptions not only for the health of the mother, but also for rape and incest.

McCain's statement was so completely out of the mainstream that the only explanation I can venture is this: He knows his chances of winning the White House are next to zero, and he is just being a good soldier for the party and trying to mobilize the hard-right base so the Republicans can at least save some congressional races which they might lose if the turnout of Republican voters plummets.

The End

The evening dwindled with a discussion on education that, once again, goes to prove how far out of touch with America's sensibilities McCain's campaign is. Referring to McCain's vow of a spending freeze, Obama went on to say:

Recently his key economic adviser was asked about why he didn't seem to have some specific programs to help young people go to college and the response was, well, you know, we can't give money to every interest group that comes along.

I don't think America's youth are interest groups, I think they're our future. And this is an example of where we are going to have to prioritize. We can't say we're going to do things and then not explain in concrete terms how we're going to pay for it.

Then came the time for closing statements, and to wrap up the longest debate season in the nation's history. It started in April 2007 and ended, tonight, with McCain's desperate attempt stop the hemorrhage of undecided and moderate Republicans that have decisively tilted the election in Obama's favor over the last two weeks: Enter Joe the Plumber.

But according to post-debate polls, McCain's stop gap solution did not work. Joe the Plumber is in fact just that: a plumber, not a miracle-worker.

[NOTE: You can find the full debate transcript here.]

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