10/17/2008 02:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Joe Is A Distraction, Not A Plumber

Turns out that Joe the Plumber is McCain's October surprise -- the new Willie Horton, and perhaps the game changer McCain has been lusting for. At Wednesday evening's debate, McCain not so discretely planted the seeds, telling the "story" of Joe and then mentioning his name 25 times in less than an hour.

All over the right wing blogosphere stories are buzzing about how Joe epitomizes what's wrong with America and how Obama is going to turn the country into a "Marxist" dreamland. With a sleight of hand, the McCain camp has again changed the topic, deftly leading the media frenzy to avoid more talk about the real issues.

While the Republicans deny that this was their strategy, the short evolution of Joe shows otherwise. Why was Fox News on hand, cameras ready to roll, at an Obama visit to a small Ohio town on Sunday (Oct. 12)? What were they expecting? Why did Joe sound like a walking point man for the McCain campaign? How did the right-wing web site Family Security just happen to find Joe and interview him the day before the debate?

The Republican claim that in talking about Joe's story they are now talking about the economy and taxes (or rather Obama's tax plan) is bogus. They are not talking about Obama's tax plan vs. McCain's plan or any other policy for that matter. Nor are they talking about the economy meltdown. War? What war? Throw in a little oil talk once in awhile when it can help grease Sarah Palin's stump speeches, but otherwise now, it's all Joe all the time for as long as they can milk it.

And the media play right into their hands. Joe, whose name is actually Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (mispronounced by McCain during the debate), will continue to dominate TV and radio, where most people get their news, and will remain competitive even in the world of print. From the time of his initial encounter with Obama through the next couple of weeks, he'll probably gross more money than he has in the last two years.

The right will continue to hold Joe up as the epitome of middle America and how McCain really really does too understand the middle class. That's the image McCain has needed all along to "connect" with his base and has been unable to project. But now he doesn't need to connect because he's got Joe to stand in as a surrogate.

The fact that Joe is not what either he himself or McCain presented doesn't stop them any more than it did with Palin. His campaign didn't bother to do much vetting for either of them. In the world of spin, facts don't matter; it's all about perception. So Palin can stand in front of the crow and in front of the cameras and say with a straight face that the Alaska legislative committee report exonerated her when the report specifically said she violated ethical laws. And Sam/Joe can stand in front of the cameras and say he's a plumber who is "getting ready to buy a company [the business that currently employs him] that makes 250 to 280 thousand dollars a year" when he's not licensed as a plumber and there's no indication that he has the means or the savvy to buy any business.

AP reports that the company Wurzelbacher works for is Newell Plumbing and Heating Co. of Toledo, owned by Al Newell; he and Newell are the only employees and by his own admission it was six years ago during his job interview that Joe mentioned the idea of buying the business. Bloomberg News has reported that the company's net profit is between $150,000 and $200,000, which means Joe isn't making anywhere near the cutoff for any new taxes in Obama's plan.

Joe's description of the "American dream" that he wants to be able to pursue is all hypothetical and seems designed to challenge Obama. Joe six-pack is revealed as don Quijote: he already owes back taxes to the state of Ohio to the tune of $1183 for which there is a lien on his house. Not exactly the position one needs to be in to buy a business that can throw off $250,000 or more. In his position, he probably can't even get a credit card.

But in picking Wurzelbacher, the McCain campaign made a slick move. As was the case for Palin, Joe appeals to the base because he's just like millions of Americans who are over their heads in debt and buy lottery tickets to make themselves feel like there's hope. Joe isn't a union member. He applied for an apprentice program with Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics in 2003 but he never finished it. He thinks Social Security stinks and a flat tax is fair even though he stands to benefit from Social Security and with a flat tax he'd pay a considerably larger portion of his income than those who earn a lot more. He apparently had another lien, since cleared up, from a hospital bill. So even though Obama's health plan would also benefit him and McCain's would pick his pocket more, he's against "socialized" medicine.

A perfect mimic for the base, Joe has said he's opposed to Obama's plan to "redistribute the wealth" although that characterization of taxation in general is inaccurate. After all, tax revenue is used for many things; a big chunk goes for defense, which is hardly redistributing anything. (Joe was in the Air Force, stationed coincidentally in Alaska.) Other items include money for roads, bridges, schools (he has a son in a public school), water systems, etc. Are these budget items a redistribution of the wealth? Ironically, the parts of the budget that the conservative/right wing designate as "socialist" and often "Marxist" (they don't distinguish the two ideologies in spite of the differences) are the very ones that directly benefit them. Show me a conservative who has refused to sign up for Medicare and/or Social Security.

So the first game changer was Palin, which over time turned out to have an overall negative impact on McCain's numbers. But it had an initial impact that didn't subside immediately. There's a little more than two weeks for the press to find another bone to chew and for Obama to get back to real issues. Is there enough time left for Obama to let the Joe myth die on its own or does he need to push back immediately and drain the energy out of Joe, who seems to be holding the dam for McCain.

All protestations to the contrary, it's hard to believe that no one from either the Republican Party or the McCain campaign or perhaps a Rove protégé for Fox gave Wurzelbucher a heads-up before Obama's appearance in his neighborhood. The limelight might be fun in the beginning, but can he sustain it? By offering himself up to the McCain camp, which he did by agreeing to the subsequent interviews even if he wasn't complicit in the beginning, Wurzelbacher has thrown caution to the wind. Because he wasn't vetted, it is Joe who will be picked apart and scrutinized and it's only just begun. For as long as McCain keeps Wurzelbacher as his connection to middle America, ordinary Joe, role model for the base, will continue to sleep with the lights on.