Joe the Plumber: Taxes and Swing Votes
by Byrne Hobart
Joe Wurzelbacher might think twice about getting involved in politics again. A week ago, Joe the Plumber was just another plumber. Now he is the Joe the Plumber, a more important political topic than the War in Iraq, and a more sensitive debate subject than abortion or gay marriage.
How did Joe the Plumber find his way into the spotlight? First, he happened to be named ‘Joe’: every candidate wants a less insulting, more family-friendly replacement for “Joe Sixpack,” and Joe the Plumber is definitely it. But more importantly, he touched on a crucial issue: what are the long-term effects of the Obama and McCain tax plans?
In the video that made him famous, Joe sounds like his mind is made up, but he’s in for a surprise: he asks Barack Obama about how a small plumbing business earning $250,000 to $280,000 would be affected by Obama’s tax plans, and Obama responded with a blizzard of facts and figures about the new tax breaks, tax subsidies, and capital gains tax cuts that completely change the picture.
Obama’s extended remarks involve a bit of transparent double-talk: in his version, lower taxes on low income-earners would have allowed Joe to make more money, but higher taxes on Joe’s employer wouldn’t have made it harder for Joe to get a job in the first place. Of course, Obama’s job isn’t to give an evenhanded presentation, especially when he’s talking to someone who disagrees. But in an argument between a Harvard-educated politician wielding memorized soundbites, and a plumber with a quick (and leading) question, it’s good to step back and ask what the better debater might have been hiding.
Joe is appealing to voters because the whole scenario is politically neutral, but it’s also great partisan tinder. Republicans can view it as the story of an ordinary taxpayer standing up to a crafty tax-and-spend politician; Democrats can see it as a partisan asking a loaded question and getting a complete answer from the guy with all the answers.
This shows that voters aren’t just looking for news about tax policies — they’re looking for narratives. People don’t just want to know what happens to tax brackets; they want to know what happens to ambitious employees who are saving up to buy a new business.
Obama and McCain both recognized this, and threw in plenty of Joe the Plumber mentions during the last debate. As a way to turn a policy into a story, he’s unmatched: he’s a low-income worker with high-income ambitions, so any flavor of partisan has something to offer him. Joe the Plumber will probably be forgotten by the end of this political season, but his lesson — to personalize even the dry details of future tax policy — will certainly be remembered by future campaigns.