Faulty Plumbing

Believing something doesn't make it so, Joe

Earlier today, CJR’s Megan Garber was right to fault the media for being distracted by the humor of the “Joe the Plumber” story. But I don’t quite agree with her suggestion that the media should have used him as a way to show tax policy’s impact on “real people.”

Post-debate digging has found that the real Joe Wurzelbacher, of Holland, Ohio, is not an undecided small businessman who is honestly trying to sort through the imact of the candidates’ tax proposals. He voted in the Republican primary, and he regards a progressive tax code as un-American. He also is either confused about the details of the Obama tax plan, or simply distrusts the Democratic nominee. Wurzelbacher is entitled to his opinions, to be sure. But they make him a poor protagonist in stories about tax policy, not to mention a bad poster boy for McCain’s attacks on the Obama tax plan.

Katie Couric scored the first interview with Wurzelbacher, and prompted this exchange:

COURIC: Well, he supposedly will raise taxes only on people who make over $250,000 a year. Would you be in that category?

WURZELBACHER: Not right now at presently, but, you know, question, so he’s going to do that now for people who make $250,000 a year. When’s he going to decide that $100,000 is too much, you know? I mean, you’re on a slippery slope here. You vote on somebody who decides that $250,000 and you’re rich? And $100,000 and you’re rich? I mean, where does it end? You know, that’s - people got to ask that question.

In a subsequent interview, Diane Sawyer pressed Wurzelbacher on this point. Is it fair to tax at a higher rate people who make more than $1 million, she asked? Or $5 million?

Well, I mean, quite honestly, why should they be penalized for being successful?… That’s wrong. Because you’re successful, you have to pay more than everybody else? We all live in this country. It’s a basic right. And Obama wants to take that basic right and penalize me for it, is what it comes down to. That’s a very socialist view and it’s incredibly wrong.

ABC also learned that the very premise that transformed Wurzelbacher into the anti-tax icon Joe the Plumber is false. John McCain claimed that The Plumber would make more than $250,000 annually if he were to become the owner of the business he currently works for, putting him into the tax bracket that would pay more under Barack Obama’s proposal. But it turns out that the purchase price of the business is $250,000-$280,000. In all likelihood, Wurzelbacher would still belong to the 95 percent of Americans Obama has said will not see their taxes increase.

You have to feel a little sorry for Wurzelbacher, who suddenly has reporters uncovering the fact that he does not have a plumbing license and that he owes back taxes. Even before the Joe the Plumber frenzy began, The Washington Post’s Tom Shales suggested devoting resources to covering a random guy from Holland, Ohio would be a symptom of the way “the electonic media are ever on the lookout for ways to trivialize the democratic process.”

But the iconic power of someone called Joe the Plumber is compelling—that’s why John McCain brought him up at every turn last night, and why McCain can’t stop talking about him today on the stump. In last night’s debate, McCain invoked Wurzelbacher to lecture Obama: “what you want to do to Joe the Plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business.” When the moderator, Bob Schieffer, gave Obama the opportunity to respond to this charge, McCain persisted, “That’s what Joe believes.”

But the sincerity of this person’s belief does not make it true—that’s why the press has the obligation to turn the character Joe the Plumber into a real guy named Samuel J. Wurzelbacher. Voters deserve to hear about the real effects of the candidates’ plans, not about the fictional world of a cartoon character.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.