Tax questions in hand, Ohioan becomes campaigns' everyman

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / October 16, 2008
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We have met Joe Six-Pack, and he is Joe the plumber.

Make that Joe Wurzelbacher, a bald fellow from Ohio who, as luck or misfortune would have it, spent about 5 1/2 minutes debating tax policy with Barack Obama on the campaign trail Sunday.

At last night's debate, Wurzelbacher became - depending on which candidate was invoking him at the moment - the emblem of the inheritor of the American dream, the overtaxed working-class hero, the guy who's made it and now has a responsibility to those who haven't, or the small-business owner who could use a little government help buying health insurance.

By one count, John McCain mentioned him 15 times and Obama named him five times.

But first, let's backtrack to what happened on the trail the other day.

Wurzelbacher told Obama he wanted to buy a plumbing business that makes $270,000 to $280,000 a year. Would it be taxed more under Obama's plan? Obama acknowledged that it would: For whatever amount it earns over $250,000, the marginal tax rate would increase from 36 percent to 39 percent - the same amount it had been under President Clinton, before the Bush tax cuts.

Obama asked Wurzelbacher to think back to the days when he was earning, say, only $60,000 or $70,000 a year. If he'd had a good-size tax cut then, he would have been able to save more and therefore buy his business sooner. "It's not that I want to punish your success, I just want to make sure that everyone who is behind you, that they have a chance at success, too."

He said, a bit later: "Right now, everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody. . . . I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

In last night's debate, McCain seized on the encounter as evidence that Obama's tax plans amounted to "class warfare."

"Joe," he said, "I want to tell you, I'll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for . . . I'll keep your taxes low, and I'll provide available and affordable healthcare for you and your employees."

Obama tried to explain that he wanted to increase Joe's taxes "in order to give additional tax cuts to Joe the plumber before he was at the point where he could make $250,000."

But that was not the end of Joe.

A few minutes later, McCain jumped at the chance to return to the subject of "my old buddy, Joe." "Now, Joe . . . if you don't get - adopt - the healthcare plan Senator Obama mandates, he's going to fine you."

Obama said small businesses were exempt. Showing uncharacteristic exasperation, he said: "All I want to do if you've already got healthcare is lower your costs. That includes you, Joe."

Reached by the Associated Press after the debate, Wurzelbacher said it was "pretty surreal" to be mentioned in a debate.

He said of McCain: "He's got it right as far as I go."

But he wouldn't say which candidate would get his vote Nov. 4.

"That's for me and a button to know," he said.

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