Meeting Joe the plumber

Jean Edelstein gives her verdict on the latest US presidential debate and wonders if loving the UK o

Though I’ve heard in the past that plumbing is a profitable trade, I never understood quite how much until last night.

You'll have heard of Bob the builder. Now meet Joe the Plumber - a blue collar, all-American hero; a disciple of the American Dream. Someone whose business is apparently still so lucrative that he is within the top five per cent of American wage earners. Even in this time of near-unprecedented financial crisis, our nation can’t help but get hairballs lodged in its waste pipes.

But all is not rosey in Joe's garden. Tragedy may very soon strike just around the next U-bend in the form of higher taxes if Barack Obama wins the White House.

So warned Republican John McCain in the latest presidential debate. McCain gazed, watery-eyed but steely into the camera and told Joe the Plumber – Joe Six-Pack’s hard-working doppelganger? – “I’m…going to help you buy that business”. I felt, for a fleeting moment, that until I, too, learnt to manipulate a plunger, I would never quite be a real American.

At Hofstra University in Long Island – a private institute that Joe the Plumber might consider to be worryingly close to the pulsing heart of Manhattan’s liberal elite, but which has a comfortingly mediocre academic reputation that won’t intimidate Joe Six-Pack - Obama and McCain squared off last night, moderated by veteran American TV newsman Bob Schieffer, to discuss domestic issues. It was the final of three gruelling and fairly tedious debates in an even more gruelling and tedious electoral process. Perhaps because they are tired, this time the candidates were allowed to sit down, unlike the last when they roamed about the town-hall style meeting and experimented with different styles of awkward pointing.

McCain, perhaps, deserves a Most Improved badge: having honed his style of performance over the course of these showdowns like an over-keen but untalented high school forensics competitor, this time he figured out not only how to look his opponent squarely in the eye but also how to address him by name which he somehow managed to do in an exclusively hostile and patronising fashion, pulling squinty, childish faces in the background when his opponent was speaking, mannerisms that he perhaps picked up from his running mate. ‘He’s like a character from the Simpsons!’ declared my debate-viewing companion. McCain’s assurances that he would unpick the Old Boy’s network in Washington fell flatter than ever: at the end of this long and hard campaign, no amount of makeup (or even nerve-paralysing bovine toxins) can hide the fact that McCain looks like more of an Old Boy than ever after his 26 years inside the Beltway.

Mind you there were plenty of gems in there if you were really concentrating. On the topic of health care, McCain argued that if you like Obama’s plan, ‘you’ll love Canada and England’. Which, of course, as a ex-resident of the neighbour to the north who currently dwells in the UK, I really do. Does that make me un-American, Senator McCain?

Obama once again proved that his aptitude for splendid oratory is not quite as splendid when he has to speak extemporaneously. Between the slightly awkward pauses, however, he stared soulfully into the lens, appealing directly to Joe the Plumber and outlining solid policy initiatives and uttering phrases that made my little liberal heart skip a beat: “ordinary families”, “preventative health care”, “an army of new teachers”, and – finally! – “we should try to prevent unintended pregnancies”.

A long and somewhat irrelevant discussion about the nature of the campaign itself was the clear lowlight of the evening, with the exchange taking on the tone of a particularly nasty marriage counselling session as each candidate cast blame on the other for negative campaigning: McCain looking stricken when he recounted how Congressman Jim Lewis had associated him with mid-century segregationists; Obama frowning as he noted how McCain supporters had accused him of being a terrorist.

By the end of the segment, both looked so world-weary and unhappy that it would only have been right for them to hug and cry and agree that they loved each other, despite the hard times, but instead they forward to the conversation about their vice-presidents, about health care, about abortion.

Here McCain’s rhetoric referring to those who do not approve the overturning of Roe v Wade as ‘pro-abortion’ was unusually hardline for him, reflecting his desperation to pick up the most conservative votes.

They concluded with a snippy discussion about how to reform the American education system covering the same tired points that have been raked over since the Clinton years. Conclusion? Nothing's getting reformed any time soon.

Who won at Hofstra last night? The only American who could say, with any authority, is Joe the Plumber.

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