In recent weeks it looked like Senator Barak Obama had the 2008 presidential race sewed up. His lead seemed to be in double digits, and the Mainstream Media had decided the contest was "over". But now the race has now tightened to a one or two point Obama lead, in some polls, while others show it dead even. In the end, two guys named Joe might decide it.
An ordinary guy named Joe Wurzelbacher (a.k.a. "Joe the Plumber") became an improbable election-year folk-hero when he engaged Senator Barak Obama in a brief, unguarded exchange at a campaign appearance in Toledo, Ohio. Evidently accustomed to worshipful treatment from people at his campaign events, the senator appeared to be taken off guard when Mr. Wurzelbacher (we'll take the liberty of calling him "Joe") tossed him hardballs, instead of the usual softballs.
Joe observed that the Obama tax-plan would raise his taxes and make it difficult - perhaps impossible - to buy a plumbing business that had an annual income of $260-280,000 a year. (Mr. Obama has advertised his intention to raise taxes only for people making more than $250,000 per year, while lowering the taxes of everyone else.)
In an exchange captured on video, and broadcast numerous times since, Joe said the higher taxes he might pay under Mr. Obama's plan would penalize him for trying to live the American Dream of owning his own business. Perhaps not realizing how his response would play on TV, in millions of homes across the country, Mr. Obama forsook the teleprompter to explain that he wanted to help others "share" Joe's success. A segment of Mr. Obama's comments:
"95% of folks who are making less than 250 - they may be working hard too, but they're being taxed at a higher rate than they would be under [my plan]. So what I'm doing is - put yourself back 10 years ago when you were only making whatever, 60 or 70. Under my tax plan you would be keeping more of your paycheck, you'd be paying lower taxes... Now look, nobody likes high taxes. Of course not. But what's happened is... we've cut taxes a lot for folks like me who make a lot more than 250. We haven't given a break to folks who make less, and as a consequence, the average wage and income for ordinary folks, the vast majority of Americans, has actually gone down over the last 8 years. So all I want to do is... I'm gonna cut taxes a little bit more for the folks who are most in need and for the 5% of folks who are doing very well - even though they've been working hard and I appreciate that - I just want to make sure they're paying a little bit more in order to pay for those other tax cuts. Now, I respect the disagreement. I just want you to be clear - it's not that I want to punish your success - I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you - that they've got a chance at success too."
The shockingly frank exchange clarified the entire Obama philosophy - i.e., not using taxation only to fund government, but to transfer wealth from those who have earned it to those who haven't. During his answer, Mr. Obama very smoothly perpetrated some half-truths and outright falsehoods. One was the familiar charge that incomes of most people have not increased over the last eight years. He hedged by saying, "average income," but he made it sound like wages for the "vast majority" of Americans have gone down. Of course, that's false. Much data show that large numbers of people migrate from lower to higher income levels in relatively short periods of time. Most reporters know this, but they let Mr. Obama skate on it. (It makes a good story.)
He also repeated the standard liberal whopper that the Bush tax cuts helped higher income earners, while low-income people got nothing. In fact, the Bush cuts moved millions of people off the tax rolls entirely. Nearly 50% of all wage earners now pay no federal income taxes at all. Mr. Obama delicately omits this fact from his explanation to Joe. Subsequent statements from the Obama campaign have "clarified" that the Obama tax cuts would actually issue checks to those workers who already pay no taxes. (Can you say "redistribution", Joe?)
Seizing the opening, Mr. McCain hammered the "Joe the Plumber" story during his third debate with Mr. Obama, mentioning "Joe" numerous times, and repeatedly charging that Mr. Obama's tax policies would keep people from investing in new small businesses and prevent existing ones from growing. At one point he looked into the TV camera and with a grin addressed Joe directly: "Hey Joe, you're rich. Congratulations."
Sensing the damage the exchange between Joe and Obama could do to their candidate, partisans inside and outside the Obama Camp immediately went after Joe. Some accused him of being a McCain "plant" whose purpose was to embarrass Mr. Obama. It was quickly learned that Joe didn't have a master plumber's license, so attackers claimed he wasn't a real plumber at all. (He never claimed he was - only that he wanted to buy a plumbing business, which he can do in Ohio without a plumbing license.) Reporters combed Joe's tax records, producing the "aha" that Joe owed $1000+ in back taxes. (Rep. Charlie Rangel owed $10,000, but reporters yawned when this was disclosed. When I last checked, Joe the Plumber wasn't writing new tax laws for the rest of us.) Even Joe W's divorce records were examined. Bloggers worked overtime to smear him.
By way of minimizing Joe W's legitimacy, vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden joked that no "plumbers" in his neighborhood were making $250,000 a year - as though he was an ordinary "Joe", living amongst lunch-bucket guys scratching by on $40-50,000 a year. But Sen. Biden lives in a $3 million-dollar, 7000-square-foot mansion, which stands on a four-acre lakefront estate in one of Delaware's priciest areas. One seriously doubts that the senator has ever known a plumber, personally. If he has, it must have been a long time ago. (Why else would he think a plumbing business couldn't take in $250,000 a year? And when did he last pay a plumbing bill?)
Today, as I complete this article, I am hearing this newly famous "plumber" on conservative talk-shows - taking calls from listeners and giving his unvarnished viewpoint on taxes. Media efforts to destroy him have failed. He has become the face of McCain's economic policy for 2008. More importantly, he has become the fly in Obama's ointment. He will not go away.
The "other Joe" in this campaign has become almost as interesting. He is, of course, Senator Joe Biden - vice-presidential running mate of Senator Obama on the Democratic ticket. A venerable old liberal war-horse who has served for donkey's years in the Senate, Mr. Biden's addition to the ticket evoked a chorus of adoration from the media for his formidable foreign policy experience. This, it was sagely noted, would more than offset Mr. Obama's scant experience in this vein. (Indeed, Mr. Obama's executive experience in any vein is exceedingly thin.)
Almost (but not entirely) forgotten in this blaze of good feeling was Senator Biden's tendency to put his mouth in mtion before his brain is in gear. This produced potentially wonderful copy for reporters, had they been interested in it. On one occasion he noted how FDR went on TV to explain the stock market crash of 1929 - a difficult feat, even for FDR, since there was no TV in 1929, and FDR didn't take office until 1933. Joe Biden also claimed France and the USA had "kicked" Hezbolla out of Lebanon - although that terrorist party is still a strong force in Lebanese politics. Big Media has done its best to chuckle about the senator's tendency to make "colorful" statements that would sink Sarah Palin, should she say anything similar.
I am not the first commentator to note that Joe Biden has repeatedly been wrong - demonstrably so - on important foreign policy issues, including de-funding South Vietnam, overwhelming the Soviet Union with arms-building, causing its collapse, and the Desert Storm Iraq war. Senator Biden did vote to go to war against Iraq, in 2003 - a vote which Senator Obama calls "wrong". Thus, the leader of his ticket thinks Mr. Biden was wrong on what Mr. Obama calls the "defining foreign policy issue of our time". Many political observers consider Mr. Biden a very curious (and potentially problematic) choice for the Obama ticket.
That problematic potential was not long in coming to dubious fruition. With just two weeks to go in the 2008 campaign, Joe Biden unaccountably declared, at a Seattle fundraiser, that an Obama administration would face a serious international crisis within six months of its inauguration. His exact remarks:
"Mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember, I said it standing here, if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy. He's going to have to make some really tough - I don't know what the decision's going to be, but I promise you it will occur. As a student of history and having served with seven presidents, I guarantee you it's going to happen."
Thus, with the Obama campaign still trying to clean up the fallout from Joe the Plumber, its own VP-candidate threw another stink bomb into the arena - reminding voters that the Anointed One is perilously weak in the national security suit. One imagines members of the Obama brain trust jumping out of windows. In noting the bizarre turn of events, an acquaintance wondered if Senator Biden was really that stupid, or if he had suddenly realized, in the dark of night, that he might become part of the most disastrous four years in American history, should the Obama ticket win. "Could he actually be trying to sabotage his own ticket?" asked my bemused friend.
We'll never know the answer to that question, of course. Indeed, it might be a moot point, if the Obama-Biden ticket manages to win, as it well might. Mr. Obama has the formidable advantage of a sickly economy, which might take years to resuscitate. Foreign policy issues were slowly receding as a cause for concern among voters, as the Iraq war moved toward a successful conclusion. All seemed quiet on the far-flung fronts of the world. Even the nettlesome issue of drilling for oil had evaporated, as oil crashed to $63 a barrel, after hitting $147 in July. Voters were poised to elect a Democrat - inexperienced though he might be in foreign policy - because they thought he would be best at addressing domestic issues. But then, without warning, the two Joes struck. In a few weeks we'll know if they have upset the greatest sure thing since Thomas Dewey, in 1948.
As Yogi Berra said, "Things are more like they are now than they've ever been."