Friday, October 28, 2011

Joe the Plumber vs. Dennis the Menace? Seriously?

I can see this coming from 100 miles away, streaking toward Cleveland on Route 2 like a drag race between a Ford pickup and a Prius. Everyone from Stephen Colbert to Fox News, from Politico to The Onion, will want a piece of this action. The most cartoon-colorful congressional race in the nation: Dennis "The Menace" Kucinich vs. Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher.

Seriously, it could happen. Joe the Plumber announced his run for Congress this week. Laugh if you want, but the conservative media darling's name recognition seems to have scared Rob Frost, the Cuyahoga County Republican chairman, out of the race.

Now we are faced with the unholy spawn of Republican gerrymandering, a Frankenstein-monster district that has unnaturally stitched Toledo's peculiar politics together with Cleveland's. One congressional race. Two candidates whom the national media doesn't take seriously and who inspire political satirists to new heights of YouTube-able ridiculousness.

Only two things can stop it.

Joe the Plumber isn't running to take Dennis down. He wants to unseat Marcy Kaptur, Toledo's longtime progressive congresswoman. But the impending Kaptur-Kucinich primary is tough to call. Lots of people think Kucinich has the edge. Brent Larkin is the only person I've seen who's explained why Kaptur has a good chance.

Also, Democrats in Columbus have shrewdly used referendum petitions as leverage to try to force a compromise on redistricting and a new map fairer to Democrats. Negotiations might dismantle that ruthlessly gerrymandered lakeshore district.

I'm not going to get into whether Wurzelbacher is actually a serious candidate. Hey, the guy had the good taste to announce his candidacy at Tony Packo's, which wins him points in my book.

My take on the Plumber phenomenon goes back to his first minute of fame. Why is it that he becomes a hero, a celebrity, a political character, just for asking a presidential candidate a tough question?

Joe Wurzelbacher's life changed the day Barack Obama campaigned at a picnic in his neighborhood. Like anyone would, Joe headed over to see what was going on. Like any good citizen who doesn't like a candidate's politics, he got a second with Obama and challenged him.

Though he's a working-class guy, Joe is the type of conservative who doesn't much like progressive taxation. He told Obama that his tax plan -- to raise rates on people making more than $250,000 a year -- would keep him from buying a business. So John McCain championed Joe in a debate, leaving Obama to make the point that most plumbers don't make $250K.

I see why McCain would make Joe a hero. Populist solidarity with the rich is key to the Republican electoral strategy, no matter how illogical liberals think that alliance is.

My question is, why is it so rare to see a voter challenge a presidential candidate? It should happen all the time. We should expect them to face questions in unstaged situations. But hand-shaking and conversation are old-fashioned in an age of security cordons, nine-figure campaign funds, and stage-managed "town hall meetings." Once the candidates get past Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other tiny early-primary states, facing voters one on one is a rare thing.

You can just imagine presidential candidates' strategists looking at Joe's fame and saying, "That's it. After February, none of this 'regular people at a picnic' crap."

They don't want to risk a gaffe, or any cable-ready unscripted moment. But now it's more than that: They don't want to accidentally spawn a congressional candidate.

To read my profile of Kucinich, "The Missionary," click here. To see The Complete Kucinich, an archive of Cleveland Magazine's coverage of Kucinich's career, click here.

(Photo: Rona Proudfoot of Lorain, Ohio)

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