Joe the plumber isn't really called Joe, doesn't have a plumbing license and may not be hurt by Barack Obama's tax plan after all.
Other than that, the scenario painted by overnight celebrity Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, whose recent exchange with Obama over taxes was appropriated by John McCain in Wednesday's debate, holds up perfectly.
Wurzelbacher clashed with Obama this week on the campaign trail in Ohio. He said he was a plumber who feared the Democrat's plan to raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year would sabotage his bid to buy his own plumbing business.
The back-and-forth, captured on videotape, almost instantly transformed Wurzelbacher into a conservative hero, a middle-class missile to be aimed by Republicans directly at Obama. In the debate, McCain made so many references to “Joe the plumber” that he sounded like a potential Cabinet member. (At times both candidates began speaking to “Joe” directly, as if he were the only person watching.)
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By Thursday morning, a new media man-of-the-moment was born. But by Thursday afternoon, some details were emerging that were at odds with the image McCain presented to the public.
His hometown newspaper, the Toledo Blade, reported Wurzelbacher didn't have a plumbing license and wasn't registered to work as a plumber in Ohio. More to the point, the paper said Wurzelbacher doesn't have the money to buy the plumbing business where he now works, even though he told Obama that's what he was hoping to do and why he was concerned about the Democrat's tax plan.
And even if Wurzelbacher could buy the business, it's unlikely that it would net the kind of income that would place it in a higher tax bracket under Obama's plans.
On the contrary, under Obama's tax proposal, the plumbing business Wurzelbacher has his eye on might be in line for a tax cut. And that's something Wurzelbacher has more reason than many to want. He owes about $1,200 in back taxes to Ohio.
Beyond his personal situation, however, Wurzelbacher's tax concerns are likely shared by many small-business owners. McCain has repeatedly suggested most will suffer under an Obama administration.
Obama, on the other hand, argues his tax plan would either leave most small-businesses owners unaffected or even benefit them.
“People want to make small business the poster boy for this tax increase,” said Eric Toder of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, which has studied both candidates' tax plans.
Who's right? Not surprisingly, it varies from establishment to establishment. The term “small business” can include anything from a one-person shop to a company with scores of workers. Many small-business owners pay taxes as individuals, not as corporations.
Presume for a moment that everything in the picture Wurzelbacher painted for Obama is true. That the plumbing company he wants takes in a taxable income, after overhead and deductions, of more than $250,000 a year. His taxes then would almost certainly rise under Obama's plan.
Obama wants to increase the tax brackets for personal income for those making more than $250,000 a year from 33 percent and 35 percent to 36 percent and 39.7 percent. But he is also offering a tax cut for lower-income earners. He maintains the average middle-class family will see a tax savings of $1,000.
As a result, Toder said, the vast majority of small-business owners wouldn't be affected by Obama's tax plan because they don't make enough money.
McCain has a tax plan, too, that would essentially leave many Bush administration tax cuts in place while further reducing the corporate tax rate.
“The general difference is that McCain wants to generally reduce rates for everyone and not pick losers and winners and not micromanage the economy,” said Chris Edwards, a tax expert at the CATO Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank. He predicted Obama's plan would cause headaches for small-business owners. “Maybe the plumber would benefit under Obama's plan, but he would have to leaf through pages and pages of new tax forms to figure it out,” Edwards said.
From Wurzelbacher's perspective, even the prospect he could benefit from Obama's plan doesn't matter. He told the Blade he wouldn't want the tax cut – on principle.