What Went Wrong In Wisconsin? Establishment Dems Wanting a Hug
There's been a lot written about Wisconsin, the death (or rebirth) of the union movement, locals vs nationals and the general problem with recalls as a political tool. But Rick Perlstein's analysis strikes me as the one that gets right to the heart of what went wrong. Guess what? It's the same thing that always goes wrong:
...therein hangs a tale: about grassroots Democrats who act like activists, who hold that slaps are sometimes what it takes to get the political job done, and Democratic leaders who act like you can solve all political problems with a hug. Which, pretty much, was Tom Barrett's entire election platform. As I explained here in May, the leading candidate in the primary to face Walker in the recall ran with a take-no-prisoners strategy to restore union rights: she pledged to veto any budget that didn't restore collective bargaining. That meant that if she won the statehouse, Republican legislators in Madison could hold on to their anti-union law only on pain of shutting down the state.There is something about Democrats, and many liberals in general, that makes them desperate to be seen as reasonable to the exclusion of everything else, even winning. If I thought there was some great benefit to this, I might agree, but there is ample evidence that nobody ever sees them as "reasonable" and that they get nothing for their attempts.
Then, out of nowhere, little more than two months before Election day, a new candidate announced: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Two days earlier, he'd had a $400-a-plate fundraising luncheon, closed to the media, hosted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Here was a signal: Barrett was the Democratic Party Establishment's man. And the Democratic Establishment, in this age of Barack Obama, does things in a very certain way: it never takes any prisoners, never takes the most gutsy path (this is even true for the vaunted "tough guy" Rahm Emanuel, whose standing orders as White House chief of staff was never to take on any fights unless victory was assured in advance).
Barrett immediately announced a different plan to reverse the anti-union law if he became governor: He would call a special legislative session, in which he would introduce a standalone repeal bill. He would make it hard for his side on purpose. He would make the lions lay down with the lambs, Obama style. He would sell himself to the electorate as the peacemaker. He would follow the Bill Clinton strategy, triangulate against his own side. If swing voters hate union cronyism, he would prove he wasn't a union crony. "I'm not the union guy," he would say on the campaign trail – he was the guy the unions didn't want; they even tried to talk him out of running.
There are many problems with this strategy. The first has to do with the way the media works. Programmed robotically to see any political issue in polarized terms, journalists will register "leftist" pugnacity no matter how conciliatory a Democrat behaves in actual fact – as with Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama now. The second problem is that it requires Democrats to simultaneously surrender the actual benefits of being bold, tough partisans. The Republicans enjoy the grassroots energy of a fierce field army on the ground convinced they are fighting for nothing less than the survival of civilization (meanwhile they harvest moderates in a far more efficient way – using their money advantage to saturate the electorate with slick TV ads). Democrats appeal to moderates as their activist strategy – although, in an old saw Democrats have long ago forgotten, moderates are the people who don't knock on doors on election day. Liberal activists who show up do so reluctantly – having already seen their candidate sell them out.
Barack Obama didn't win big because of his "reasonable" platform. He was widely seen as either a liberal change agent or someone who could make the other side agree with him by sheer force of his personality -- or both. Now, that never made a lot of sense, but it hugely appealed to a large number of people. They didn't love him for being "reasonable", they loved him for being powerful. That was a rare race and he was a rare candidate. But as it turned out, he too wanted more than anything to be seen as the grown-up in the room, splitting the differences, making Grand Bargains, mediating between the two extremes and most of all, "changing the tone" which was a fools errand, but it didn't stop him from trying.
Perlstein talks about the Bill Clinton rally in Wisconsin, in which the man who was dragged through the mud by his political opponents from the day he was elected and was even impeached over a sexual indiscretion said the same thing:
In jeans, his chalk-white hair flopping in the breeze, William Jefferson Clinton hit every one of the Barrett campaign's talking points. Scott Walker, he said, had launched Wisconsin into a civil war – and a vote for Barrett was a vote to end the civil war. "Constant conflict," he said, was "a dead-bang loser." The reason people admire Wisconsin, he said, was for its tradition of holding "vigorous political debates, closely held elections" after which "people got together and figured out what to do!" All over the world, successful communities were the ones featuring "creative cooperation .... The 'divide and conquer' strategy is nuts." He talked about the Tea Party Republican who unseated Richard Lugar, condemning the incumbent Republican Indiana Senator "for working together with a President from another party on national security," promising, "I will never compromise."Here's a little reminder of what Richard Lugar said about Bill Clinton befoire he voted to impeach him:
With premeditation, he chose his own gratification above the security of his country and the success of his presidency.Mr Reasonable. Gosh, we'll sure miss his kind in the Senate.
The thing is that it was Clinton's ability to thwart these extremist nutballs that gave him his power --- and made people feel loyal to him, even today. It's not that his policies were beloved, believe me. It was that he was persecuted by a pack of jackals and he survived it --- even thrived. (And as Perlstein points out in his piece, he was also smart enough to run for re-election on saving the dreaded "entitlements" rather than putting them on the auction block.)
I don't know what happened in Wisconsin. If I had to guess it's that the air went out of the recall balloon because it took so long. (In California, we went very quickly --- a short six week circus and then it was done. Electoral March madness.) Democrats on the ground went for the establishment candidate who promised to be "reasonable" and it appears that that was not what a majority of people in Wisconsin wanted. Go figure.
Still, once again, everyone's ignoring the reality that the Democrats took back the senate and have now effectively stopped Walker's agenda cold. I'm beginning to think that the biggest problem Democrats have isn't overreach, it's that they place so much hope in the Big Win that they fail to see how the little wins can add up to something bigger over time.
Update: Oh, and I shouldn't lave out Perlstein's punch line: they cheat.