If there's anything more repugnant than blatant pandering, it's xenophobia.
How else can you explain Barack Obama and John McCain's handling of the plumber issue during Wednesday night's debate? Clearly, both presidential candidates knew that this plumber would be someone with universal appeal to average Americans and would provide a valuable device for framing their economic plans.
The one problem is that everyone watching the debate knew the true identity behind the mystery plumber, and was roundly appalled by the anti-Italian sentiment exhibited by the presidential hopefuls whose cover up cost their campaigns some bounce. That plumber's true name is Mario, and he's angry enough to smash bricks.
You see, Mario came from a simple background. A lowly construction worker, Mario labored beneath a hulking brute of a boss who took great delight in knocking Mario down each time he tried to move up the company ladder. This boss, who"ll we'll refer to as D.K. for legal purposes, continually rolled obstacles into Mario's career path and kept him away from his female companion for long stretches of time.
Mario's significant other, whom he adored like a princess, stood by dutifully -- asking only that Mario come back to her at the end of the day. Like many hard-working, recently naturalized Americans, Mario often had to work more than one job to make ends meet. He moonlighted as a referee, achieving notoriety for working bouts featuring Mike Tyson. His factotum lifestyle kept him in the athletic world -- where he struggled as a scratch golfer, tennis pro and go-kart driver -- but also earned him the nickname "Paper Mario" during a brief stint in publishing.
Tired of floating from job to job, Mario and his brother pursued their American dream as a family by joining a plumbing outfit in the early 1980s. Though constant interruption brought his work to a turtle pace, he and his brother eventually landed a government contract that expanded their territory from a one-room operation to an entire kingdom.
Though Mario was making plenty of coin, success came at a cost. He became hopelessly addicted to "magic mushrooms" and other botanical supplements that he needed just to get through the day. Mario's popularity led to fewer hours for his brother, who had grown noticeably more slender and had taken on a sickly green complexion. To top it off, there seemed to be more impediments to a relationship with his beloved princess than ever before.
Meanwhile, the environment around him was changing and expanding. Globalization had opened up a new Mario world, which could seem as big and complex as a galaxy at times. His workload increased, he spent more time on the job and every time it seemed he'd had his obstacles beaten, he was forced to start all over again.
Mario has become an icon the world over as a result. He now represents every immigrant who had ever struggled through the levels of society and has opened the door for countless others who came after him. Without the empowerment of the freebies he finds along the way, however, his struggle would be nearly impossible.
This argument failed to reach the powers that be, as the plumber was reduced to a sound bite in an argument about tax policy. McCain said Obama's tax plan would hurt the plumber's chances of owning his own business, while Obama said that countless people who admired his work would benefit even if he didn't.
"It's not that I want to punish your success," Obama said. "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you that they've got a chance at success, too."
Perhaps it's best that Mario was reduced to a two-dimensional figure during last night's debate. Had the candidates addressed his plight in human terms, perhaps he wouldn't appear to be just an unwitting player in the candidates' game.