Monday, November 3, 2008

Joe the Plumber is no Bud Johnson

I don't get Joe the Plumber. Sometimes he campaigns for McCain; sometimes he doesn't show up. Sometimes he admits that his taxes would be lower under Obama; sometimes he attacks Obama's patriotism. Sometimes he says he doesn't want to be in the spotlight, but then he hires a publicist to get some kind of book or music record deal. He's almost as erratic as McCain's campaign. Why does he think we're interested in him? Why do the Republican base get excited about pushing his supposed "everyman" "small business guy" narrative? To me, the whole Wurzelbacher saga is like a manufactured and botched attempt at creating a real life Bud Johnson.

Who's Bud Johnson? He's the swing voter in the movie Swing Vote. Spoilers for the movie below.

I'm guessing that not many people saw the movie Swing Vote this year, let alone remember it, but it was the Kevin Costner film about a presidential election decided by one voter from Texico, New Mexico. It was a pretty good movie, though there was a self-indulgent scene where Costner got to perform with his band. But I liked it overall, even when I sensed that the movie would end without us learning the outcome of the election. It seemed that the point of the film was not to be partisan, and to simply encourage its audience to be informed and interested voters, rather than apathetic and informed by soundbites only. Rather like an earnest "The More You Know" PSA, only with extra family drama and comic relief from the media circus.

Anyway, like Joe the Plumber, Bud Johnson doesn't actually go by his real name. His real name is Ed, I think--it's been awhile and I don't remember for sure--but he goes by his nickname of Bud. He's a blue collar guy, working in an egg-packing plant, and he has a 12-year-old daughter Molly, who is intensely civic-minded and feels superior to her lazy, often drunk dad. She was the one to register Bud to vote, and when he doesn't show up at the polls that night, she sneaks in to the nearly deserted polling place and tries to vote for him. Unfortunately the machine loses power in the middle, and she runs off in a panic, leaving the ballot stuck inside. So when the election is too close too call, the officials track down Bud Johnson and tell him he has the right to re-vote at a certain date in the near future. They swear him to secrecy, but a local reporter finds out Bud Johnson's identity and reveals it to the world, thus causing the ensuing media circus and the absurd turns of the campaign.

When the election officials first arrive, Bud and Molly are afraid that Social Services has come to take Molly away; that's a much more pressing issue to them than the election. (That and the fact that Bud has been recently fired.) So they are relieved to learn that it's not Social Services, and Bud soon realizes that Molly tried to commit voter fraud, but he doesn't turn her in. The next day, they're shocked and frightened again by a mob of reporters outside their mobile home. Bud hides inside with his daughter until he's slowly coaxed out, as representatives from both candidates try to woo him. One is the Republican incumbent Andrew Carrington Boone, played by Kelsey Grammer, and the Democrat is Donald Greenleaf, played by Dennis Hopper. Soon Bud begins to enjoy his celebrity and take advantage of various perks he's offered. The President even shamelessly tries to awe Bud by inviting him onto Air Force One, and to scare him into agreeing that the secret nuclear codes shouldn't be handed over to an untested Democrat. (Something which sounded very familiar to the later refrains about Obama's inexperience.)

Even the town of Texico benefits from the flood of national media to the area. However, Bud's casually offered remarks on subjects like gay marriage, abortion, and immigration prompt the Republican and Democratic candidates to absurdly flip-flop on the issues, to the point where the town get angry at Bud for making them look like fools. I wondered why Greenleaf didn't fight back in a common sense manner; why simply surrender the environmental issues to the Republicans, and not just call out his opponent as an insincere flip-flopper who would back out of his promises the moment that Bud voted for him? I'm so glad that Obama has taken this tactic about McCain's attempt to steal the "change" theme.

Eventually, Bud realizes that the fun has gone out of this spectacle, especially once Molly tries to run away to her mother. Then Bud gets serious and decides to hold a final Presidential debate before he makes his decision. With help, he diligently studies up on the issues and reads through some of the boxes and boxes of letters that have been sent to him, and which Molly has been secretly answering and crying about because she felt so helpless to solve the nation's problems. Then Bud publicly redeems himself by giving a heartfelt opening speech at the debate, and the movie ends without showing the actual debate, or who Bud ultimately votes for. The open ending may be infuriating to some, but I think the filmmakers were trying their best to be neutral and not portray either party as the good guy or bad guy. Both campaigns were run by win-at-any-cost managers, and both candidates feel dirty for flip-flopping. And it's actually the Republican who tells Bud that, no, he shouldn't get a job as a lobbyist, and he should vote as he thinks best.

Although Bud Johnson would seem to be a smalltown redneck that would naturally gravitate to Republicans, he acts genuinely undecided, like a real swing voter. He gets excited about being invited to a Democratic party with Willie Nelson, a reminder that Republicans don't have exclusive ownership of the heartland. (I also thought wistfully of Kinky Friedman's run for governor of Texas, and his intent to put Willie Nelson in charge of the Texas Energy Commission because of Willie's support for biofuels.) And though Bud grumbles with his co-workers about "insourcing", companies purposely attracting Mexican immigrants to take American jobs, he does protest when one guy starts saying racist things. Bud doesn't blame the immigrants themselves, for wanting to provide for their families; he rightfully blames the employers. Also, Bud is a fisherman, so Greenleaf points out that a local river is in danger to sway Bud to his green environmental policy. And Bud shrugs off the gay marriage question from a reporter; he tries to say that he doesn't care what people do in their own homes, and that this wedge issue has no relevance to him. Similiarly, he says, "Who isn't pro-life?" which is misinterpreted to mean that he's against abortion. But pro-choice people aren't against life; they're just for personal liberty to decide this private issue.

Bud Johnson is no one-dimensional caricature, but a man with different opinions depending on how a question is asked. A real regular guy who isn't sure which candidate is actually going to make any difference solving his problems. From what we know, he seems to be a moderate centrist who simply hasn't thought deeply enough about specific policies. And though she was supposed to be more sympathetic and idealistic, Molly sometimes seemed to be a little close-minded and arrogant. When she asked her dad what his political party was, he replied that he was a conscientious objector. She acted like he was stupid for saying that and then signed him down as an Independent because that's what a thinking person should be. She never even stopped to consider that maybe that's what her dad meant--that he didn't fit clearly with either party, so to define himself, he would list things that he did believe in. "Conscientious objector" could mean that he didn't want the whole nation to go to war, not merely himself. He didn't express himself well, but I do think he was trying to answer her question. I don't fit neatly into categories either. I vote Democratic, but I have been further left than the party for some time, and I was even idealistic enough to vote for Kinky Friedman for Governor, thinking that he actually had a shot. I regret that now, because we got stuck with Rick Perry once again.

Anyway, this is one of the appealing things about Obama--his reaching across party boundaries. His saying that we shouldn't be divisive about labels. We can agree on a middle ground if there is a genuine effort to compromise and to see the value in both left and right positions. I've been pleased to compare how this real life election has turned out in comparison to the fictional one.

I only wish that Wurzelbacher would get a clue about what a laughingstock he is, but it seems he's still stuck in the "taking advantage" stage of his celebrity. I can't wait for him and Sarah Palin to go away. We've had enough of their ridiculous distractions.

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