From ‘Joe the Plumber’ to ‘Joe the Campaigner’

Dec 312008

Murtaza Ali Shah goes on the campaign trail with the undisputed icon of the presidential race who says America has the right to spread ‘freedom and democracy’ in the world through wars

MIDDLETWON, Ohio: Nobody knew him outside of his circle of close friends, work mates, and his immediate family. He lived an ordinary life and there was nothing about him that could have attracted people’s attention anyway.

It was his encounter and a frank discussion with the Illinois Senator and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in Toledo during a campaign rally that catapulted ‘Joe the Plumber’, 34, to instant worldwide fame and changed the focus and direction of the bitterest ever fought American presidential contest.

During the third and last presidential debate in front of billions of viewers in America and across the world, John McCain introduced Joe the Plumber to the world while debating economy with his Democratic rival. Joe the Plumber’s name was mentioned 26 times and since then the man - whose real name is not ‘Joe the Plumber’ but Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, and who is actually not a licensed plumber - has become a national as well as a global fixture. Followed by a TV crew, which captured the lively exchange lasting for about six minutes, Obama walked up to ‘Joe the Plumber’ never knowing the landmine which lay ahead.

"Do you believe in the American dream?" Wurzelbacher asked Obama.

"Yes, sir," Obama replied.

Wurzelbacher told Obama he was trying to buy a business but worried that he will pay higher taxes under Obama’s economic reform package.

"Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" he asked.

"It's not that I want to punish your success," replied Obama. "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance for success too. My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody. . . . I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." Obama concluded by telling Wurzelbacher: "Even if I don't get your vote, I am going to work for you."

The encounter and Obama’s “spread the wealth around” remarks changed the terms of the debate forever as Republicans seized on the encounter to draw a number of political advantages, including branding Obama as a dangerous socialist out of touch the ordinary upward-moving, middle class Americans such as ‘Joe the Plumber’. McCain’S running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, has dubbed Mr. Obama the "redistributor” - someone who will pound on the wealth of haves to give to the undeserving haves-not. Joe the Plumber’s appearances on mainstream media gave every hint that ‘Joe the Plumber’ was a staunch conservative but he stopped short of endorsing a candidate until Tuesday.

This correspondent was invited to join RepublicanS’ ‘Ohio – Joe the Plumber tour’, on the Victory 2008 bus taking former Congressman Rob Portman, ‘Joe the Plumber’ and a group of Republican loyalists and strategists to meet groups of local “Joes” across the swing state. At a chilly afternoon rally in Middletown, locals, most of whom were conservative women, some with infants, some draped in Republican flags gathered outside a local pool business to welcome the celebrity ‘plumber’. Portman broke into a scholarly discourse of why the Republicans should be given a third conservative four-year term in the White House but barely anyone took notice of the former Congressman, a close friend and political ally of President Bush, and what he had to say. The people had gathered there to welcome their hero – ‘Joe the Plumber’ – and as soon as he took to the podium, the air filled with applause. He said he was using his celebrity status to help American people come to a decision who to vote for. He was clear who he was stumping for: “I am going to vote for the real America – John McCain.”

Reveling in his status and taking a shot at Barack Obama, he said small businesses, which were the heartbeat of American success story, will suffer under Democrats. Tax experts believe that the candidates' blueprints for helping small business are identical for all but 2 percent to 3 percent of the highest-income small businesses. Obama's tax plan calls for no tax increase for working couples earning less than $250,000 a year – Joe the Plumber earns far less - and provides for a middle-class tax cut. Experts say McCain's plan is more generous for small businesses but this argument will have little resonance with the Republicans who are employing every scare tactic against Obama’s candidacy. “Voting for Obama means standing up for American values – love of family, discipline, mom and dad, neighbours, and your community,” he told his fans, urging them to vote for McCain and send a clear message to the “federal government that is far removed from what we do day-to-day”.

He told The News he has no immediate plans to enter politics full time but didn’t rule out running for the office in the future. “Right now, I want to spend more time with my 13-year-old son. Yes, I will consider going into politics full time to do the right thing.”

Answering a question on the legacy of George W Bush’s 8-year rule, Joe the Plumber said he was feeling safer because “Bush has done a lot of things to make the American people feel safer and to ensure that we are not attacked by our enemies.” One of the major good things Bush has done, Joe told The News, is his legacy of “spreading freedom and democracy” around the world. “It’s a great thing to do and what Bush has done is great for America. He was right to go to Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Endorsing McCain in other towns here on the same day, ‘Joe the Plumber’ shot some astonishing statements. At one appearance he said he feared that Obama would turn the US into a socialist nation. At another rally, he agreed with the statement of a McCain supporter that "a vote for Obama is a vote for the death of Israel.” He will not elaborate how Obama, who has said his commitment to Israeli security is "nonnegotiable" and is set to gain a large share of Jewish vote, would be damaging to the Jewish state.

Such views – and even worse or more radical - are held dearly by many people in this strongly conservative Bible-loving belt.

Gretta Mewhorter, 51, a proud Hockey Mom, wearing Sarah Palin’s badge, has taken time off from her insurance company to campaign for McCain in her community.

To her, she told The News, God and family are the most important priorities. That’s why she reads the Bible everyday, cries to God and begs for McCain’s victory. When it was pointed out that Obama was a practicing Christian and took his oath on the Bible, she spouted the conspiracy theory that he was not a true Christian and was only misleading the nation. She believed the Bible he took an oath on must be fake and there must be an investigation into it, as well as into Obama’s past links with fiery African American Christian priest Jeremiah Wright, who has said 9/11 was a punishment for America from God and who allegedly hates whites and Israel, and former left-wing militant-turned- academic Bill Ayers, who once bombed the Pentagon. “Call me a racist if you want but I don’t think Obama has the same values as the real Americans. The Jeremiah Wright church he went to is closed for whites. Can you believe its happening here in America to its own people?”

The fiercely anti-abortion, pro-guns and pro-hunting Gretta, who has campaigned against gay sex marriages, said she was convinced Obama will pounce upon the rights of the states and individuals. Invoking Thomas Jefferson, who had said that any government big enough to give you everything that you want is big enough to take everything you have, Gretta said Obama was headed down the path of killing the American dream of freedom and liberty by ignoring the common people and spending big.

Involved in the church and politically active since her teen years, Gretta admitted this was the first election in her lifetime which was causing her a migraine. “I have never seen so much division in this nation, so much spite, so much of ideological difference in values. I blame Obama for doing this to us. He scares me.

“Instead of putting our country first like McCain will, Obama will put the world first and he has said that many times. That explains why the whole world wants him elected. I know rest of the world hates us and Obama wants the world to tell us who we should choose. That’s not acceptable to true Americans and their values,” she added.

Jenny Kerr, 79, who had driven three miles to meet Joe the Plumber, said her vote was always for the Grand Old Party (GOP) but the 9/11 attacks on the US, the memory of which is still fresh in her mind, made her views more resolute and she had become a strong Republican, impressed by George W Bush’s declaration of war against terrorists. In Joe the Plumber, she has found the “average, ordinary American” who believes in standing up for the motherland.

Bruce George, a local small business owner, said he admired Joe the Plumber for speaking his mind and for taking up issues that are important to the American people. Before Joe the Plumber was made to get on board the Victory Bus again by his Republican aides to address the next rally, George made sure to shake hand with Joe the Plumber, take his picture and autograph. Off went in a royal style, 'Joe the Campaigner'.