At a John McCain rally in Virginia on Saturday, Tito Munoz had come to face the enemy: the news media, which had declared war on Joe Wurzelbacher.
"Why the hell are you going after Joe the Plumber?" Munoz yelled at a group of reporters, including my National Review colleague Byron York. "Joe the Plumber has an idea. He has a future. He wants to be something else. Why is that wrong? Everything is possible in America. I made it. Joe the Plumber could make it even better than me. ... I was born in Colombia, but I was made in the U.S.A."
Who knows what it will do for McCain in the end, but the Joe the Plumber phenomenon is real. At the rally, supporters carried handmade signs reading "Phil the Bricklayer" and "Rose the Teacher." Wurzelbacher symbolizes an optimistic, individualistic vision of America sorely lacking until recently in McCain's rhetoric.
Barack Obama, in contrast, has offered the most rhetorically eloquent defense of collectivism since Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his biographical video at the Democratic convention, he proclaimed that in America, "one person's struggle is all of our struggles." In his acceptance speech, he artfully replaced the idea of the American dream with the century-old progressive nostrum of "America's promise."
But the two visions are in opposition: the former individualistic, the latter collectivist. We each have our own idea of the American dream. Joe the Plumber's is to own a small plumbing company; yours might be something else entirely. In America, that's fine, because the pursuit of happiness is an individual, not a collective, right.
Obama's "America's promise," meanwhile, harkens back a century to the writings of such progressives as Herbert Croly (author of "The Promise of American Life"), who demonized individualism while sanctifying collective action overseen by the state. Obama often articulates a vision of government inspired by the biblical injunction to be our brother's keeper. Few would dispute the moral message, but many disagree that such religious imperatives are best translated into tax or economic policy. (Where are the separation-of-church-and-state fetishists when you need them?) But individualists haven't had much of a voice in McCain, at least not until last week.
So we've listened to Joe Biden question the patriotism and, at times, piety of those who don't share Obama's economic vision. We've listened to Michelle Obama promise that her husband will make Americans "work" in his effort to fix our "broken souls." We've heard the candidate himself say that we should agree to higher taxes in the name of "neighborliness," and that he'd raise the capital gains tax even if it demonstrably lowered revenues "for the purposes of fairness." His "tax cut" for 95 percent of Americans is in large part a middle-class dole. He will cut checks to millions who pay no income tax at all and call it a tax cut.
In short, Obama's explanation to Joe the Plumber that we need to "spread the wealth around" is a sincere and significant expression of his worldview, with roots stretching back to his church and his days as a community organizer.
Millions of Americans don't share this vision. They don't see the economy as a pie, whereby your slice can only get bigger if someone else's gets smaller. They don't begrudge the wealthy their wealth; they only ask to be given the same opportunities. They look at countries such as France and, rather than envy its socialized medicine and short workweeks, they fear its joblessness and tax policies that punish entrepreneurialism. People like Tito Munoz look at America and see an open path to their own American dream.
It would be nice if the media at least tried to understand this point.
Instead, they attacked and belittled a citizen who asked a candidate a question. They think he's stupid or a liar for not understanding that a promised check from a President Obama is more valuable than some pipe dream about future success.
It's funny. When PBS's Gwen Ifill had a straightforward conflict of interest her forthcoming book hinges on an Obama presidency that should have prevented her from moderating the VP debate, she and her fellow journalists tittered at the critics. All that matters, Ifill and company insisted, are the answers, not the questioner.
That's apparently the standard for people like Gwen the Journalist. But if Joe the Plumber gets revealing but embarrassing answers out of the media's preferred candidate, suddenly the questioner matters more than the answer. And he must be punished.