There You Joe Again

In which the media miss the merit of an average Joe

Before last night’s presidential debate, if I were to mention the phrase “Joe the Plumber” to you, the image you’d conjure in response would likely involve a doughy male backside, leaning below a kitchen sink, the waist of the jeans meant to cover said backside riding just a little too low to do the job, if you know what I mean.

You would probably not picture, therefore, Joe Wurzelbacher, newly minted as the official Joe the Plumber™ of Campaign 2008: a beefy bald guy who, after fifteen years spent working as a plumber in Holland, Ohio, is now in a position to buy a company that could gross up to $280,000 a year. You would probably not picture the guy who is—based on what we know about him, anyway, from reporters’ frantic phone calls and even more frantic Google searches—in many ways a fitting example of the hard work and resultant upward mobility that are key components of the old campaign-trail standby that is The American Dream.

But, today, as the direct result of “Joe the Plumber” being evoked twenty-six times during last night’s presidential debate, stereotype has collided with reality. The cliched old image of the saggy-pantsed pipe-snaker has been not only fleshed out, but transformed. You’d think the media would be thrilled about this turn of events, since, in Wurzelbacher, they have a person who humanizes the candidates’ tax policies, and who exemplifies the effects each candidate’s proposals might have on an average American. You’d think.

Instead, the media responded to Joe the Plumber™ in the same basic way they responded to Joe Sixpack™: with a barely-disguised roll of the eyes. “Does Joe the Plumber know Joe Six-Pack?” asked Reuters, gleefully. “‘Joe the Plumber’ becomes a national fixture,” declared the Los Angeles Times, barely able to contain its delight at its own punny headline. “Barack Obama looked like a prosecutor delivering a polished summation in a long civil case, Joe the Plumber v. George W. Bush,” wrote The New York Times. “This should forever be known as the Joe the Plumber Debate,” opined The Washington Post. “Now We Know Joe Six Pack Is A Plumber,” announced TIME.

Granted, this campaign has been going on for nearly two years now—and, like all parents dealing with a kid in its Terrible Twos, the media have a right to indulge in some levity. Particularly in a situation which involves a candidate for the presidency of the United States using the phrase “my old buddy, Joe the plumber” with a straight face in a Serious Policy Debate. So, on the one hand, you know, have at it.

And yet. There’s a fine line between having fun and making fun. And it’s a line many in the media straddled, if not fully crossed, last night. TV pundits, in particular, found great delight, last night, in declaring, oh-so-ironically, that “Joe the Plumber won the debate.” But, um, why is that ironic? Isn’t it kind of fantastic that a literal Average Joe became the focus of a give-and-take between candidates?

The reason Wurzelbacher was mentioned last night in the first place, after all, is that he carried on a long (six-minute, which is eons in Campaign Stop Time) conversation with Obama about the candidate’s tax policy. Their debate was nuanced and respectful and rooted in the everyday implications of policies too often presented in abstract terms. After explaining his situation to Obama, Wurzelbacher told the candidate, “I’m being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American Dream.” To which Obama responded,

I’m gonna cut taxes a little bit more for the folks who are most in need and for the 5 percent, of the 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.

“It’s not that I want to punish your success, “Obama concluded. “I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you – that they’ve got a chance at success too.”

See the full exchange—which was, all in all, long and thoughtful—here.

Sure, you could say, the exchange gained the traction it did because Obama happened to use the phrase “spread the wealth around” in the course of his discussion with Wurzelbacher, which—socialism alert!—made it spread like wildfire among conservative media outlets. And, sure, McCain is being cynical in framing Wurzelbacher’s situation as evidence of Obama’s desire for “class warfare,” as he did last night—and, generally, in framing himself as the working man’s only friend in Washington. Perhaps, taken together, the media have a reason to be jaundiced toward someone like Joe.

Still, though, the media need to be framing candidates’ economic policies in terms of how they’ll affect people. That’s a large part of their job. The initial exchange between Wurzelbacher and Obama was, above all, a great example of the give-and-take that should be occurring between the candidates and the voters; it’d be great if the media would make themselves part of that conversation. As Clint put it today on The Kicker, “As Joe The Plumber enjoys his 15 minutes, would it be too much to ask that some of that time be devoted to fair-minded determinations of how the candidates’ respective tax and health care plans would affect people like Joe? How about to finding out roughly how many Americans are in situations roughly similar to Joe?”

While we’re asking those questions, it’s also worth wondering why, exactly, we have an impulse toward irony when it comes to people like Joe. And whether that impulse might just have something to do with the fact that so many Americans mistrust the media.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.