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Dismissing the American Dream

Matt Yglesias thinks Joe the Plumber is nothing more than an ill-advised pander to the GOP base:

The idea behind the Joe the Plumber saga is that Barack Obama would be bad for people like Joe, a small business owner who is (putatively) prosperous enough to be hit by Obama’s tax hikes on people with over $250,000 in annual income. Of course Joe doesn’t actually earn that much. But if he had, Joe would just be the very model of a hard-core Republican. Whites are more Republican than non-whites. Men are more Republican than women. Small business owners are more Republican than any other occupational group. High-income people are more Republican than are middle-class and poor people. And among white people, those with no college degree are more Republican than those with college degrees.

Thus, a white male small-business owner practicing a blue collar trade and earning enough money to be hit by Obama’s tax hikes is nothing other than the Platonic Ideal of a Republican (think Tom DeLay when he owned a successful bug-killing business). Republican crowds go wild for Joe because they can identify with him. But by the same token, the people who identify with Joe are the Republican base. They can’t turn this thing around. And they’re certainly not the people you’re supposed to be talking to in October. It’d be as if Barack Obama were criss-crossing the country with a young, hip lesbian acting as his main surrogate to attack McCain’s health care plan.

This would be true but for one important detail. The factor Yglesias derides, then dismisses, is the key to Joe’s broader appeal and the actual “idea behind the Joe the Plumber saga”: Financially, Joe isn’t there yet — that’s the point. Aspiration is a fundamental American trait, one that reaches far beyond the GOP base. Every last one of Barack Obama’s unemployed, out-of-gas, debt-crippled sob stories shares with Joe the desire to make it — whatever “it” is for them. Joe the Septic Tank Mogul wouldn’t have the same effect.

In Joe, McCain has hit on Obama’s message of hope, but with a novel twist: he takes American voters to be self-sufficient adults. While Obama whets your appetite with the trinkets he plans to dole out, Joe ignites your hopes for personal achievement. This isn’t a contrast between conservative and liberal philosophy. It’s a contest between rejecting the American dream and embracing it. If people like Yglesias have come to consider the latter the sole domain of Republicans, it tells you a frightening lot about today’s Democrats.


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