A day after making Joseph Wurzelbacher famous, referencing him in the debate almost two dozen times as someone who would pay higher taxes under Barack Obama, McCain learned the fine print Thursday on the plumber’s not-so-tidy personal story: He owes back taxes. He is not a licensed plumber. And it turns out that Wurzelbacher makes less than $250,000 a year, which means he would receive a tax cut if Obama were elected president.
McCain likes to say that he isn’t George W. Bush – and in this case of bungled public relations, it is clear he is not. The famously-disciplined Bush campaign operation would likely have found the perfect anonymous citizen to illustrate a policy proposal, rather than spontaneously wrap itself around an unknown entity with so many asterisks.
While the arc of Wurzelbacher’s breakneck trip through the news cycle – from private citizen to insta-celebrity to political target – offers a curious insight into the political media culture, it also appears to offer a glimpse into the McCain campaign’s on-the-fly decisionmaking style.
A McCain source said Thursday that the campaign read about Wurzelbacher on the Drudge Report, while another campaign aide confirmed that he was not vetted. Senior McCain adviser Matt McDonald told Politico after the debate that Wurzelbacher was not aware that he would become central to the candidates’ third and final showdown, although Wurzelbacher told reporters Thursday that the McCain campaign contacted him earlier in the week to ask him to appear with the candidate at a Toledo rally scheduled for Sunday. (He may not make it, now that he's scheduled to be in New York for TV interviews.)
“Joe, if you're watching, I'm sorry,” McCain said Thursday, referring to the press attention that the Ohio man had received, during a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman.
McCain said he has not spoken to Wurzelbacher yet. Aides have reached out, hoping to get him on the stump at some point.
By Thursday evening, though, the McCain campaign had tied itself even closer to Wurzelbacher than the night before.
His campaign released a web ad titled “Joe the Plumber.” McCain opened his rally in Downingtown, Pa., with a shout-out to Wurzelbacher.
“We had a good debate last night. I thought I did pretty well, but let's have a little straight talk: the real winner last night was Joe the Plumber,” McCain told 1,000 people. “He won and small businesses across America won, because the American people are not going to let Senator Obama raise their taxes in a tough economy.”
For a few moments, the crowd chanted, “Joe! Joe! Joe!”
“Joe’s the man!” McCain yelled back.
Obama veered from his prepared remarks in Londonderry, N.H., to question McCain’s use of Wurzelbacher, saying the Republican senator’s tax plan would do more for corporations and wealthy individuals than, say, a plumber.
“He is trying to suggest that a plumber is the guy he’s fighting for,” Obama said told a rally with 4,100 people. “How many plumbers do you know making a quarter of a million dollars a year?”
Obama’s remarks echoed those of his vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden, who criticized McCain for “the notion of this guy Joe the Plumber.”
“I don’t have any Joe the Plumbers in my neighborhood that make $250,000 a year that are worried,” Biden said on NBC’s Today show. “The Joe the Plumbers in my neighborhood, the Joe the Cops in my neighborhood, the Joe the Grocery Store Owners in my neighborhood – they make, like 98 percent of small businesses, less than $250,000 a year. And they’re going to do very well under us, and they’re going to be i real tough shape under John McCain.”
Wurzelbacher, 34, a single father and self-described conservative, emerged as a symbol for a tax debate that has become a mainstay of the give-and-take on the campaign trail, and also of the white working-class voters who have been pursued so vigorously by both candidates.
The exchange between Obama and Wurzelbacher that first brought him to the McCain campaign’s attention, occurred Sunday while the Democratic nominee was canvassing for votes in Toledo.
“I'm being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American Dream,” Wurzelbacher told Obama, adding he was concerned about having to pay more taxes as he worked towards his goal of buying his own plumbing business, which could draw income of $250,000 a year. “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?”
Obama said that, under his proposal, those making $250,000 or less would not pay more in taxes, but incomes above that level would be subject to a higher tax rate.
“It’s not that I want to punish your success, I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you – that they’ve got the chance at success too,” Obama told Wurzelbacher. “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
Since then, the encounter has also provided fodder for conservatives alleging his tax plan would amount to a massive redistribution of wealth.
McCain said Obama's plan would stop entrepreneurs such as Wurzelbacher from investing in new small businesses and keep existing ones from growing.
Even before the debate concluded Wednesday, local TV stations, network producers and journalists from around the country were trying to reach Wurzelbacher. By Thursday afternoon, he had been picked to pieces.
Wurzelbacher acknowledged to reporters that he doesn't have a plumber's license, but said he didn't need one because he works for someone else at a company that does residential work. State and local records show Wurzelbacher has no license, although his employer does.David Golis, manager and residential building official for the Toledo Division of Building Inspection, said Wurzelbacher still would need to be a licensed apprentice or journeyman to work in Toledo.
Wurzelbacher also owes the state of Ohio $1,182.98 in personal income tax, according to Lucas County Court of Common Pleas records. The Ohio Department of Taxation filed a claim on his property until he pays the debt, according to the records. The lien remains active.
The McCain campaign weighed in on Wurzelbacher’s behalf, using the opportunity to take digs at two frequent targets.
“It's an outrage that the Obama campaign and the media are attacking Joe the Plumber for asking a legitimate question of a presidential candidate. This is why voters still have so many questions about Barack Obama. Instead of answering tough questions, his campaign attacks average Americans for daring to look at the reality behind his words, said Tucker Bounds, spokesman the McCain-Palin campaign. “John McCain will continue to fight on behalf of all hardworking Americans like Joe for policies geared toward increasing prosperity and reducing the burden on taxpayers -- not 'spreading the wealth around' for Senator Government to distribute as he sees fit.”
Leaning against his black Dodge Durango SUV, Wurzelbacher at first was amused by it all, then overwhelmed and finally a little annoyed.
“I don't have a lot of pull. It's not like I'm Matt Damon," he said "I just hope I'm not making too much of a fool of myself."
Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin contributed to this story, which also includes information from the Associated Press.