Joe the Plumber Won't Swing the Tax Debate

Washington Matters

Joe the Plumber Won't Swing the Tax Debate

With 11 days to go, John McCain launched a "Joe the Plumber" tour through battleground states today, determined to convince voters that Joe is just like you and me and that he'll pay higher taxes if Obama is elected. The premise is wrong in three ways, but what's most amazing is that McCain doesn't seem to care.

Let's say at the start that both candidates have been guilty of plenty of distortions in this campaign -- each telling lies (yes, lies) about the other. McCain is running ads saying Obama and congressional Democrats "promise" to raise taxes on those making $42,000 a year -- exactly the opposite of what they promise. Obama, meanwhile, has accused McCain of wanting to privatize Social Security (not true) and of wanting to stay in Iraq 100 years (he never said that). He's also distorted the real-world effect of McCain's health care plan.

But what's different about Joe the Plumber is that he's been thoroughly and publicly debunked. He rose to prominence last week as a supposed example of a small businessman who would be hurt by Obama's plan to raise taxes on those making over $250,000. It soon turned out that Joe wasn't a business owner -- or even a registered plumber. He makes only $40,000 a year and even if he managed to buy the business he covets, that business made a profit last year of less than $100,000. And in the greatest irony of all, Joe would actually do a lot better under Obama's tax plan than under McCain's.

But in the strange world of politics, none of those facts mattered. Joe became a staple of McCain's speeches --  along with Wendy the waitress and Bob the barber -- as people who would be victimized by Obama's effort to "spread the wealth," even though none of them would be. Like so much else in this campaign, there seemed to be a belief that if you say something often enough, it takes on a truth of its own.


Well, there's some consolation -- maybe a lot of consolation -- in evidence that the American voters aren't that stupid. Recent polling shows that the tax argument -- a staple of past Republican campaigns -- isn't working for McCain. In fact, by a 51-43 margin voters favor Obama's tax approach to McCain's, according to the latest ABC/Washington Post tracking poll.

Why is that? Several possibilities. I'd like to think some of it is because voters are smart enough to sort through the false rhetoric, but it could just be that Obama's overwhelming money advantage has allowed him to drown out McCain with advertising. It could be, as Virginia Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine argues, that voters have seen the results of eight years of a tax-cut-only strategy and don't believe it works. Or it could be that with so many people are worried about keeping or finding a job, taxes take a back seat. In fact, taxes are way down the list of priorities that voters tell pollsters they care about this election.

We won't know if the polls are right -- or if McCain can still take charge of the tax issue and make it matter to the electorate -- until the election is over. For the moment, though, it appears that the negative approach hasn't worked for either side. That hurts McCain more because Obama has had enough money to run both positive and negative ads. McCain had to choose and right now, it looks like he made the wrong choice. We'll see.