They’re already lining up at the buffet in the City Club of Cleveland, half an hour before the meeting. The place is on the first floor, of a fine old 1920s skyscraper, in one of the few lively parts of Cleveland. The concierge sits behind a curved desk of smooth wood, the elevators are rimmed with elegant metalwork, a dial turns to tell you what floor the machine’s at. Stepping in from the half-empty street, of Subway stores and Starbucks, you pass into another era, when the city was crowded with people, and you could burst through the doors clutching your fedora and shout “hold the front page!”

The City Club has seen it all. Founded a century ago, it is one of the premier speaking forums in the country. Down the hall, there’s a line of photos of past speakers — everyone has spoken here, from Teddy Roosevelt and Eugene Debs, through FDR to Bobby Kennedy and Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu and, uh, Dubya, sepia shots giving way to kodachrome and full colour coming into the present. Sadly, the club has been remodelled in blond wood and soft yellow carpeting and now looks like a mid-price motel in New Jersey, but the vibe survives somehow. Today, the ante-room is filled equally with sharp suits, for both men and women, poking the baked fish, and loading up on salad, and guys in UAW skivvies, carving hunks out of the lasagne, and piling their plates high. They’re out in force for their gal, Marcy Kaptur, Democratic rep for the 9th district.

The rest of us are here for someone else — Sam Wurzelbacher, better known as “Joe the Plumber”, the guy who tackled Obama on a walk-around in 2008, and asked him whether “sharing the wealth around” meant socialism. Sam wasn’t named Joe, and he wasn’t a plumber — he was a plumber’s assistant, still studying for his certification — but pretty soon he was a star, taken up by a desperate McCain campaign as the poster boy for a know-nothing populism. Quickly turned out that Joe was no aw-shucks average guy, but a bit of a right-wing obsessive. Following the election, he denounced John McCain, who clearly loathed him, and was sent to Israel to cover the Gaza invasion for right-wing site Pajamas Media — where he was filmed saying that he wished there were no war correspondents at all, to sow doubt about popular causes.

Subsequent years were a little thin. He got a management company and scored an ad — reminding people that analogue TV would be switching to digital — and published a ghost-written manifesto through a vanity press. He said that the Holocaust was caused by gun control in 1930s Germany, that the founding fathers knew “communism didn’t work”, and that John McCain had screwed up his life. He never fully qualified as a plumber. In 2011 he, inevitably, became, a Republican candidate for Congress.

The Ohio 9th is a redistricted seat designed to sequester Democrat voters in an existing safe seat, with virtually no chance for a Republican victory. The local party jumped at the chance to have a culture hero, of sorts, run for it, simply to mix it up. Joe himself could chip away at the Democratic lead in this seat — which stretches from the east side of Toledo to the West side of Cleveland, along the shore of the lake — if he worked hard, and relentlessly. Though the state and the area have benefited from the auto bailout and the stimulus in general, recovery has been sluggish and by no means complete. The Democrats have been obliged to defend a very limited and partial recovery, and a populist Right candidate could really score some points with a relentless round of appearances.

But Joe is an absent presence in the Ohio 9th. His website lists no events, has no phone number, emails go unanswered, and will not be appearing at the City Club to debate Marcy Kaptur today. His listing on the City Club’s website has gone from “invited” to “not confirmed” to “did not respond”. No-one thought he would turn up — but everyone hoped he would. The 2008 election, with Obama as the magic black Jesus candidate, and McCain, Palin and Sam/Joe the not-plumber had a carnivalesque air to it, and this one is grim and cheerless. How welcome would it be to see Joe on the platform, up against the thoroughly professional and progressive Kaptur, raving about socialism and Ayn Rand in front of a UAW crowd?

But instead it’s all Kaptur, lasagne and baked fish. Worthy as she is her campaign and career, it will tell you all you need to know about the way in which Congress is organised today, the myriad barriers to democracy in America. Kaptur was elected to Congress in 1983, in a district based around Toledo, her home town. The next district along, around Cleveland, was that of firebrand Dennis Kucinich, former mayor of the city.

Kaptur is no centrist, but her progressivism has its limits — as a conservative Polish Catholic in Warsaw-by-the-lake, she votes conservatively on abortion, drugs and a whole range of issues. When the Republican state government took the opportunity afforded by the census to turn two safe democratic districts into one, they knew it would throw Kaptur and Kucinich into a fight against each other, more bitter than any competition either had faced in general elections proper. Kaptur, with a better local organisation than the more wide-ranging Kucinich, bested him 56% to 40%, giving her the field to herself, something Sam/Joe the non-plumber seems determined to assist her with by not turning up at all. The absence means she can get away with almost anything, especially in the new-found economic populism and nationalism that the party is now spruiking — its half-hearted “made in the USA” campaign, designed to appeal to ancient notions of the US as the powerhouse of the world.

For the last 20 years, the Democrats have been at the forefront of globalisation and free-trade legislation, from NAFTA to the latest batch of free-trade agreements between individual partners such as Korea and Colombia. Though they’ve held up some, such as the latter one, on human rights grounds, they’ve had no real commitment to economic nationalism. In the lead up to the 2008 election Obama had talked of grand schemes to refocus manufacturing in the states by massive government investment in clean energy etc, but that was gutted by Congress, and what survived was no match for the continued exodus of basic manufacturing to the developing world.Congresspeople like Kaptur know that, know that such jobs are not coming back — but remain willing to talk up notions that the good old days could be back again. Slight and bespectacled, in the regulation blue pantsuit, barely higher than the podium she speaks from, she has the respect and rapt attention of the enormous, shaggy men sitting at the banquet tables before her — and no wonder, because she is telling them that the only reason that US industry is no longer competitive is unfair tax policy by trading partners, and that she would be pioneering a “trade balancing act” through which the President and Congress could scrutinise trade deficits and “take action” against any major imbalances. She would be pushing for new investment in the alternative energy technologies, especially turbines. “Lake Erie is the Saudi Arabia of wind” she announces exultantly, a phrase which no doubt looks great on paper, but comes across as a stark raving mad non-sequitur, when floated across tables of plates of half-eaten baked fish.

What actions on trade exactly? That is not specified, and no-one in the friendly audience seems willing to ask the question — nor willing to ask if she is selling her loyal audience a lie, that the great days will return, without wrenching social and political change in America, far beyond the rigid framework into which she has poured her energy.

Indeed in the half hour of questions after a short speech, there is barely a hard question at all. The local hack throws in a softball which allows Kaptur to attest to the importance of caring for the elderly. Then a young man at one of the back tables, who looked like a merely curious poli-wonk gets the nod, and throws in two technical questions about alternative energy funding. Kaptur recoils, and her minders at the back panic, a couple of beefy guys in suits talking earnestly, and the young blonde beside them looked like she’d just had the car she was draped over pulled from under her. There’s only three people in the room who can follow the question and two of them are Marcy and the dude in question — but that doesn’t matter. She has to go on record backing some obscure energy grant, or not. Either way, she’s got and she knows it.

The move sends the minders into an energetic scrutiny of the audience. They light on me, with a notebook out writing in it – a rare moment of conscientiousness, motivated by the fact there was nothing to drink. I had had the nod for the next question, but suddenly the usher with the microphone steered away from me, and to another dutiful wonk, who hardballed “Congresswoman Kaptur, we’d really like to see more of you. Where will you be appearing next?” “Oh uh, I don’t know. Where am I next Ron?” and one of the suits reels off a set of appearances.

If it’s news to Kaptur, it’s news to the rest of us too — Kaptur’s schedule, like those of most candidates, is studiously kept out of the public eye. The last thing most candidates want is a random crowd, with their niggly questions and spiky opinions — managing the campaign for a safe Congress seat is something amounting to a royal passage, from a hospital workplace canteen, to a school Halloween pumpkin-carving, to the Association of Moldovan-Americans Fall meatball madness hootenanny in the old Borders store at the strip mall near Exit 63. And on it goes. Photos, pull quotes, and softball stories for the local papers, pseudo-news wrapped round local ads.

The cosy system of district redrawing ensures that most Americans will have little chance to throw a scare into their local rep — across the US’s 435 congressional districts, there are barely 30 that could be seen as genuine toss-ups, capable of changing hands, in circumstances other than a landslide. The shaping of them is a testimony to rococo artistry — here are the 10 most gerrymandered districts in Pennsylvania alone, less a political map than a Laura Ashley patterns catalogue.

You would be kidding yourselves if you thought this represented some decline in American politics from empyrean heights — after all, the term “gerrymander” is named for a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry, who shaped his district like a reptile slithering through Massachusetts. But it’s a measure of the manner in which American politics has become infected, that a basically decent person like Marcy Kaptur must so rigorously play the game — and that her audience is so willing to participate in a shared fantasy. No wonder no-one bothers to turn up. “Joe?” someone says when I ask for a contact number, to see why he’s a no-show. “He didn’t even call back! God knows if he’s drawing a campaign salary, it may be the first regular payday he’s had in years! Hah!” There’s plenty of room at the buffet.

*Too much US politics not enough? Check back this afternoon for Rundle’s take on the vice-presidential candidates debate.