It was the best thing on TV. Wednesday’s third and final debate, held at Long Island’s Hofstra University, was a classic showdown for high-noon politics. What both candidates dodged in issue-specific substance they made up for in party-line panache.
McCain threw everything but the kitchen sink at Obama, lashing out his political affiliations and tax-and-spend policies, stammering from behind the debate Formica like a wounded walrus on his death knell. Obama in turn, took the hits with his trademark avuncular ease but managed to dish out a few jabs of his own, comparing McCain’s ticket to a continuation of President Bush’s and succinctly highlighting the impracticality of the former's economic policies.
In the middle of all this was “Joe the Plumber” — nee Joe Wurzelbacher, nee Samuel J. Wurzelbacher — a mild-mannered Toledo-area plumber who has unwittingly been transformed into a figurehead for American class politics. McCain’s constant (re: forced) use of Joe cemented the real theme for the debate, and cast the Buckeye sixpackian as the true star of the evening, referenced nearly two dozen times by both candidates before the debate’s end.
It’s the sort of hokey party pandering that we’d expect in Presidential politics. It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s a pat gesture to rile up a constituency with buzz-words backed by market data. But it also works. McCain’s platitudinous patronizing metaphorically shapes and forges a literal figure for the Republican Party to rally behind. It draws a composite, it frames an identity, and it casts a contrast that will resonate with many, many people. In short, it’s the best move he’s made all campaign season.
As annoying as it was — and believe me, it was annoying — I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’m actually a fan of McCain’s new strategy. Rhetorically, it’s Reagan era populism at its best, rooted in small-town demagogy but uncompromisingly positive. Sure, it's a little much, but Joe is a guy who people can identify with. He's a hard worker. He loves America, he might go to church, and he probably hates paying taxes.
That last part is the kicker. When thinking about this, I spoke with Bill Gullan, Senior VP of Business and Brand Strategies for Philadelphia-based Finch Brands. Gullan thinks McCain's use of Joe reestablishes the race along the consequences of policy. Not only does it crystallize the consequences of the past agenda, but it illustrates the first real glimpse of who would potentially be a victim, in McCain's words, to the "redistribution of wealth" of Obama's tax plan.
See, Joe knows all about paying taxes. In fact, sometimes we'd say he pays too much. According to McCain, Joe is the guy who would suffer if Obama's tax plan became reality. The tax code, according to Gullan, is seen in these terms as a mechanism for social justice. Joe's worked hard and he wants to buy a new business, but now he must overcome new obstacles because he's in a new tax bracket. Gullan sees McCain's vision of Joe as the guy who sustains America and ultimately, the guy who will save the economy.
"For the first time, McCain successfully cast Obama as a tax and spend liberal, and at the same time showing himself as the fiscally conservative republican," Gullan said. "Whenever McCain talks healthcare, he gets in trouble. His plan isn’t easy to understand. In order to be successful, you have to differentiate the brand from the issues. The brand has to mean more than the sum total of the product. That's one of the reasons Obama's campaign is a success. The brand gains voter credibility."
McCain's use of Joe also realigns his agenda with traditional, Republican terms. This is extremely important. Joe the Plumber reestablishes the McCain brand and redefines the competing narratives. It’s the separation of man and plan. The issues reflect the brand – they inform and transcend the product line. If McCain could create a disconnect between Obama-the-brand vs. the Obama-the-policy-maker, it would illustrate a default plasticity to the rhetoric, de-linking Obama’s brand from his agenda while burnishing the McCain brand.
“If the McCain campaign can get it back on the rails of the traditional dynamic it will enable them to get that much closer in the polls. That’s the only way McCain has an opportunity to fight Obama’s lead,” Gullan said. “The reality and the natural trajectory of this race still may be too significant, but the minute they get it back on the traditional battleground the closer it will be.”
Did you get that? Joe is both a brand definer and an illustration of the competition’s faults. Not bad for a man who doesn’t even have his plumber’s license.