While it’s only been a few days since Scott Walker “survived” his brush with political oblivion, after reading the various takes on what happened and why, I thought I’d chime in with my own two and a half cents worth.
What happened in Wisconsin can be attributed to two factors: money and incompetence. Regarding the former, Walker outspent his opponent by a seven to one margin thanks not only to the Citizens United ruling but also to a rather quirky state law passed in 1987 that exempts incumbents facing recall from the typical contribution limits of a challenger. In other words, Walker’s contributors could donate any amount they wanted while Barrett’s contributors were limited to a maximum donation of $10,000. Anybody want to take a stab at how many FOW’s (Friends of Walker) had more than $10,000 just lying around? A hell of lot more than Tom Barrett would’ve had that’s for sure.
But if money played a huge role here, it was not the decisive reason for Walker’s win. For one thing, exit polls indicated that a majority of voters who voted in the election said they were likely to vote for the President in November, including 18% of those who supported the Governor. If this was a mandate for Walker, I’m sorry, I missed it.
So if it wasn’t a mandate, then what the hell was it? In short, it was a referendum on the whole idea of a recall. As strange as it may sound, while a majority of voters did not favor the tactics that Walker used against the unions, that wasn’t enough to convince them that he needed to be replaced, especially by the guy who got his butt kicked by him in 2010. I don’t know what genius thought it was a good idea to re-run Tom Barrett against Walker, but whoever it was needs to be run out of town. The conventional wisdom is that once you lose – and lose big – you sit out the next election. Even Nixon waited eight years before he ran for president again after losing to Kennedy in 1960. Apparently the Barrett campaign never got that memo.
But even before Barrett won the Democratic primary, it was clear that the strategy was to make the recall about Walker versus the unions. Back in January, I expressed grave concerns about such a strategy, believing that state Republicans would use it against the Democrats. Evidently no one was listening. Walker, in a classic application of divide and conquer that would’ve made Marx grin, tapped into the unrest of the electorate by reminding them of how privileged their union counterparts were.
In a brilliant op-ed piece in The Huffington Post titled “Lessons Learned,” Jason Linkins nailed it in one paragraph:
The real story here is that the strategy of rechannelling all that post-crash, populist angst and anger away from the malefactors of the financial crisis and directing it back at the larger, middle-class community worked like a charm in Wisconsin. Scott Walker performed to his patrons' expectations, successfully creating a zero-sum game in which one group of have-nots was pitted against another group of have-nots. You can distill Scott Walker's message down to this: “The reason you are suffering is because your neighbor takes home a pension and a health benefit.”
The problem for the Democrats from day one was that, by making it solely about the rights of the unions to collectively bargain, they ostensibly opened the door for the GOP to rub it in the noses of the millions of non-unionized workers who weren’t the favorite sons and daughters. The Democrats have their backs; we’ve got yours!
Of course, all that was bullshit. Unfortunately for Tom Barrett, when it comes to building a narrative that resonates with voters – true or otherwise – Republicans have it down to a science. Just look at how deftly they redefined the whole healthcare debate into a death panel canard. In a few short months, they had a majority of voters convinced that the government was going to euthanize their grandparents.
And now the party that lied through its teeth about healthcare and painted union workers as leeches, is now in the process of undertaking the endeavor of a lifetime: dressing up its national image so it can win a general election. After a contentious and embarrassing primary season in which the inmates had all but burned down the asylum, Mitt Romney, the reluctant conservative, is now running neck and neck with Obama in several key swing states. Wisconsin hasn’t gone red since Reagan in ’84; but with a Walker win in the recall election, expect the GOP to pour in tons of cash and force the President to campaign hard to keep the state from tipping. Funds that will be badly needed in Ohio, Florida and the mid-Atlantic states will have to be partially diverted to protect what should never have been in jeopardy in the first place.
This is the price you pay when you don’t win on the state level. The DNC and the Administration were MIA throughout this whole process and they must share at least part of the blame. Certainly the Citizens United decision is also partly to blame. But the reality is that blaming Citizens won’t get the job done in November. Like it or not, the nation is stuck with this horrible decision. Democrats must make the most of it by picking their fights more closely and then engaging proactively in them. Whatever else you might say about Republicans know this: when they see meat on the table, they don’t leave it there.
Hunger can drive a person to do desperate things. It’s hard to believe that only three years ago, political pundits were referring to the GOP as the next Whig Party, so out of touch were they. Now the Republicans are a little more than five months away from wielding complete power in Washington. Crazy isn’t it how quickly things can turn on a dime. Yes, as Cyndi Lauper once sang, money does change everything. But it’s not so much the money as what you do with it that determines your fate.
The Republicans have been unrelenting and consistent with their message ever since they got their asses kicked in ’08. With a fervor seldom seen even in championship teams they have pursued the Democrats on every front and capitalized on the opportunities afforded them brilliantly. They have been patient and diligent while their counterparts have been dazed and confused. If the Democrats do not regain their mojo and become as hungry as their opponents they are in for some bitter times, not only this November but in Novembers to come.
The economy is barely moving forward, Europe remains a mess and last month’s campaign contributions showed Romney with more donations than Obama. The scary thing in all this is that June might be a harbinger of things to come. Obama will be hard-pressed to equal, much less surpass, his ’08 total of $750 million in contributions for the simple reason that most of his likely donors just don’t have the money they did four years ago. His SuperPac will help, but let’s face it: there are a lot more conservative millionaires and billionaires out there than there are liberal ones.
Reality sure does suck sometimes. But crying over it won’t change a thing. When life deals you lemons, you make lemonade out of them. What you don’t do is take the lemons and go home.