The next lurch in the McCain campaign message came with Joe the plumber and the ‘spreading the wealth’ issue. The progressive tax code advocated by Obama has been long standing policy in the US, but abruptly became transformed into a symbol of socialism. Suddenly Obama became a Marxist, the one who wanted take money away from hard-working people and give it to shiftless loafers.
To work, this message depends on hiding the history of tax policy in the US and fostering the false assumption that the amount of one’s income directly correlates with the amount of work one does, so that taxing rich people more and poor people less can be equated with taking money from hard working people and giving it to other people. It also has racial undertones since ‘hardworking Americans’ in this context is often code for white working class people, and ‘other people’ is code for people not willing to work as hard, which is code for welfare recipients, which is code for ‘black’.
It was at this point that the McCain campaign descended into farce. I have seen campaigns in which ordinary people became symbols for points that the candidates wanted to make. But I have never seen a campaign where such people are plucked from obscurity and become transformed into actual spokespersons for the campaign, traveling along with the candidate to various events, appearing at rallies, and on TV to speak as surrogates on behalf of the campaign, as Joe the plumber and later Tito the builder did.
It was quite an amazing thing to see McCain and Palin depend so heavily on Joe the Plumber and the crowds chanting his name. Joe and Tito played the lead roles in a huge cast of characters characterized by first names and occupations. It became yet another joke with references sprouting to George the president, Dick the hunter, Ben the banker, and so on.
McCain again went overboard in his praise, describing Joe as “an American hero, a great citizen of Ohio and my role model.” Someone he met for the first time a few weeks ago and whom he barely knows is now a ‘hero’ and his role model on the basis of a single question he asked Obama?
But apart from the absurdity of promoting people you have plucked out of the crowd into speaking for you, it also carries a risk. Like with Sarah Palin, there may be lots of things in such people’s lives that may be embarrassing but you don’t know about, and such political novices are also likely to commit huge gaffes. It did not help when Joe made the preposterous claim without a shred of evidence that Obama’s election would bring ‘death to Israel’.
It was also later revealed that Joe’s family had to go on welfare on two occasions and he had to concede that the welfare system was what enabled them survive temporary adversity and raise themselves into the middle class. So he had personally benefited from the very policies that he now condemned as Marxism.
The attempt by the McCain camp to take Obama’s ‘spreading the wealth’ response to Joe the Plumber and make into a major campaign weapon against Obama proved to be a total bust. The Joe the Plumber gambit seemed to indicate that there were no limits to McCain’s willingness to debase himself. In its desperation to find a winning message, the campaign was becoming a joke.
The problem with this strategy is that McCain seemed to think that the views of the people in the immensely wealthy circle he moves in represent the views of most people. It turns out that most people are not as horrified at the idea of ‘spreading the wealth’ as McCain and Palin seem to think they are. This question has been repeatedly polled and the results are fairly consistent.
Across the nine times the question has been asked, a majority of Americans have agreed with the thought that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed. The current 58% who agree is one of the two lowest percentages Gallup has measured (along with a 56% reading in September 2000). Sixty-eight percent agreed in April of this year and 66% in April 2007.
In fact, one of the biggest champions of the progressive tax code is one of the conservative heroes, someone McCain likes to quote a lot, that well-known Communist president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt also strongly supported the estate tax on inheritances, which the very rich in this country have been strongly campaigning to kill by calling it a ‘death tax’.
The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective, a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
The progressive income tax is as American as apple pie.
POST SCRIPT: Campaign withdrawal pains
The Onion News Network reports on the disturbing phenomenon of Obama campaign workers struggling to find new meaning for their lives.