I didn’t manage to watch the last Presidential debate, so I was briefly mystified when one of my Facebook friends said they wanted to chat with Joe the Plumber. It didn’t take long to catch up to the news that “Joe the Plumber” is the new American Everyman. Make that “was”, as my memeorandum-addicted posse updated me on Joe’s unpaid back taxes and unlicensed business. John Oliver of the John Stewart show did an absolutely hysterical “on-location” report about how “They tell you that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. What they don’t tell you is that 12 of those minutes are a rectal exam.” ROTFL! It brings to mind the sage advice my father gave me when I started my Beltway Bandit job: “If you see 60 Minutes coming, run the other way!”
This whole incident serves to illustrate for me what I see as a key difference between the candidates, and indeed the party lines. Barack Obama talks in his book, The Audacity Of Hope, about how government policies can have huge impacts on citizens that the governors themselves rarely feel. Notice that it was McCain that introduced Joe into the conversation, not Obama. To me that is symbolic of how Right-Wing administrations will make decisions that work for the leaders with little attention to the impact on the rest of us. If we are negatively impacted in some way, it must be because we’re screw-ups and our failure to get the same result is our own fault; our inability to negotiate a slice of the pie reflects a lack of desert. (And dessert!).
Obama, in my mind, would never drag someone into the spotlight like that. My spouse mentioned the Keating connection and suggested that McCain likely got Joe’s permission. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. It’s callous at the least if he didn’t, but I found myself arguing very paternalistically that Joe could not possibly have understood the potential ramifications of agreeing to become a symbol as well as the McCain campaign should have, otherwise why would he have agreed? Why didn’t the McCain campaign give him a little helpful advice? Well, because the decision was the best one for the campaign, and if it didn’t work out for Joe, well, we all can see it’s because oops, Joe is a screw-up. So let’s leave him to burn in his own bed (hey, he agreed, let’s hope the radical righty’s can at least cover their heads with that one) and move on.
But isn’t it paternalistic to suggest the McCain campaign should have “known better” than Joe, and made a decision on his behalf to not invite him? Heck, people choose to make fools out of themselves on national TV every day, Jerry Springer built a career on it. Perhaps the existence of that show could count as evidence that Joe had ample opportunity to understand the decision he was making. I think it’s this paternalism that is particularly galling to those who would have our next Left be into a pit. Still, it’s not like he applied. He was provided with an opportunity crafted by folks who may or may not have been forthcoming about all the potential risks and rewards, and maybe, may not have even known themselves.
That’s been a big transition in my thinking during business school: I used to believe it was not ok to offer someone an opportunity you could not fully scope, to invite someone to take a risk. Now, at some level, I understand that’s what business is often about! But I still see an ethical line around disclosing what you know, a line that I believe too many businesses and community leaders fudge in the name of “well let them judge for themselves (and it’s their problem if they’re judging on different data than I am, who am I to speak for them?)”. People deserve to make informed decisions. It’s appropriate for them to decide to do something you wouldn’t do, but only when they make that decision armed with the same information. No you can’t fully download your experience and perspective and you shouldn’t, but too many people, I believe our nation’s recent leadership especially, use the fuzzyness of that line to huddle where it benefits themselves at the expense of others.
So long, Joe!