Saturday, October 18, 2008

'Joe the Plumber’ offers false connection between candidates and voters

(Originally published 10/18/08)

On Sunday morning, Joe Wurzelbacher was a regular guy, a plumber in Toledo, Ohio.

Then he met Barack Obama on the campaign trail.

Wurzelbacher questioned Obama about his tax plan and extracted from Obama a sentence Republicans received with glee: “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

Someone nearby was running a video camera, so it wasn’t long before the clip went viral on the Internet.

Suddenly, John McCain’s campaign staff was inviting Wurzelbacher to appear with the GOP nominee at campaign events. Barely 72 hours after his colloquial conversation with Obama, Wurzelbacher had become a buzzword: Between the two of them, McCain and Obama mentioned “Joe the Plumber” more than two dozen times in their 90-minute debate Wednesday night.

The candidates had found a symbol. The national media sensed a phenomenon. And Halloween costume retailers had been handed a male counterpart to the jackpot they already have in Sarah Palin.

As for Joe the person, he’s enjoying the benefits –- and dealing with the consequences –- of his 15 minutes of fame. He’s making the rounds on national talk shows, but he’s been exposed as a tax debtor. He’s finding that when it comes to public perception, becoming a symbol means losing some humanity.

But when the media coterie covering the presidential campaign has left the Buckeye State and Wurzelbacher returns to his plumbing truck, the caricature he became will remain with us, seared into our political psyche by relentless repetition. Whereas previous election cycles gave us soccer moms and NASCAR dads, 2008 bequeath to us “Joe the Plumber.”

So while the media asked, “Who is ‘Joe the Plumber?’” broader questions went unaddressed: What does it say about the policies of our presidential nominees when the candidates are left to explain them through an unassuming plumber from Toledo? What does it say about their leadership and their connectivity to the people they hope to govern?

What does it say about the rest of us that the candidates seize upon a symbol as if it is indicative of every American waiting to cast a ballot?

The irony of “Joe the Plumber” is that in relying on a symbol to connect with us on an individual level, the candidates abandon any opportunity of connecting with us as individuals.

By marrying their campaigns to the symbol of “Joe the Plumber,” McCain and Obama accept Wurzelbacher as an acceptable stand-in for the rest of us –- to them, he is America, writ large. In doing this, they assume one of two things: Either voters lack the ability and understanding necessary to find our own way through the implications of their proposals, or there really isn’t an appreciable difference among us to necessitate differentiation.

It isn’t a flattering picture –- for them or for us –- either way.

  • Thanks to those of you who participated in Wednesday’s live blog chat. We’ve planned another one for election night, so I hope you’ll plan to join us. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions about how we can expand or improve that feature, please e-mail me. We’d love to hear from you!

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