Hit & Run

Plumberdämmerung

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Liberal blogger Jed has grabbed the ABC News video of Obama discussing his tax plan with Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher.

It's fascinating viewing. Wurzelbacher is not the least bit star-struck and keeps prodding Obama to get off his "95 percent of folks get a tax cut" talking point. When Wurzelbacher asks about the flat tax, Obama conflates it with a national sales tax, which is just odd. But the conversation is broader than the point McCain has pulled from it: that Obama told an average guy that we need to "spread the wealth around" by taxing him.

I see what McCain is doing by making a populist argument about tax cuts as the campaign enters the final days. I'm not sure how coherent it is, though. McCain's big proposal of a week ago (which he hasn't changed) is a $250 billion buyout of bad mortgages. He wants to run against redistribution while promising that your tax dollars will be spent—let's say "redistributed"—rescuing other people from their financial crises.

This gets at a fundamental incoherence in the McCain campaign. Theoretically, he wants to cut everyone's taxes. Concretely, he wants to (and thinks the president can) rescue the economy by any means necessary. In the early part of this decade McCain said, regularly, that digging out of a crisis or winning a war "required sacrifice." Specifically, he said that wartime tax cuts make no sense. Now we're facing an economic crisis while we're fighting two wars. How to dig out? Tax cuts!

McCain definitely believes in tax cuts in peacetime, but the campaign he's running now sounds out of place. It's a 1992 campaign or a 2000 campaign. His team thinks it found a winner in this plumber-as-everyman framing. I wouldn't be surprised to see people waving wrenches at McCain rallies when (as Sarah Palin said today) "Joe or Jane the Plumber" is name-dropped. In two or four years that sort of populism could work. But it doesn't make as much sense this year.