In the regular election campaign for governor of Wisconsin in 2010, Scott Walker’s team ran an insidious internet ad campaign urging commuters stuck in detour traffic around a freeway interchange, requiring emergency replacement of several crumbling ramps, to “Blame Barrett” for the extra frustration. After seeing Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett lead the long effort to recall Walker to a rather predictable defeat, the slogan has an eerily appropriate ring.
The entire big-name, talking head, politically connected leadership of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin somehow convinced themselves that the way to recall a sitting governor was to run against him the same uninspiring grey eminence voters had rejected less than two years earlier. The only Democrat who ever lost a statewide race against Walker somehow was packaged as “The only candidate who can defeat Scott Walker.” The Democratic Party of Wisconsin didn’t initiate the recall effort, but once the recall built up momentum, quite handily destroyed it. In doing so, party leadership showed that it has learned nothing from its salutary defeat in 2010.
Voters had already expressed how a choice between Barrett and Walker impressed them. Given that choice, they preferred Walker. Getting the signatures of one million voters to recall the governor was not accomplished by highlighting some belated recognition of the sterling virtues of Milwaukee’s mayor. It was a rejection of the fundamental dishonesty of Scott Walker. The crisis cried out for bold new leadership, for a candidate who would talk substance, not political platitudes, offer new programs, not those already tried and found wanting.
By any objective measure, the Democratic Party lost control of the state legislature in 2010 by being more concerned about winning the next election than delivering any kind of results. Action on almost any program of any consequence was deferred on the ground that “first we have to win the elections and retain our majority.” By this approach, they lost their majority. One state senator was challenged in the Democratic primary, and lost badly, ending up taking an administrative post in the Walker administration. His challenger easily won the general election. The rest, between dating payday loan industry lobbyists and refusing to vote on a badly needed standard process for established regional transit authorities, went down to defeat.
The “let’s twist again like we did last summer” mentality is not limited to Democrats. House Republican leader John Boehner learned nothing from his party’s losses in 2006 and 2008, announcing upon regaining control in 2010 that his caucus would pick right back up with the priorities voters rejected in 2006. Voters aren’t looking for the same old, same old… from either party.
A county by county map shows the failure of Democratic leadership. It was predictable that Milwaukee and Dane counties would vote for anyone but Walker, while the tight ring of wealthy suburbs around Milwaukee would “stand with Walker.” But the voters who were seriously weighing how to cast their votes live in all the rest of the state. The western counties that send Democrats to congress and supported Barack Obama, the Fox Cities which have leaned away from their traditional Republican hue, were not inspired by Barrett. It takes more than name recognition to win an election. Walker ran with a deceptively bland campaign focusing on taking lunch to work in a brown paper bag, and creating 250,000 new jobs (no details provided). He ran as the fresh new face. That worked. What he really meant to do in office was deferred until another day.
Walker’s results have been destructive, but he got to work on his evil agenda. Cobbling together a majority takes more than pointing out how bad the incumbent is. It takes inspiration that Tom Barrett could not summon in 2010, and could no more deliver in 2012. It is tempting to think that if Wisconsin had a recall law like California’s, a majority would have voted Walker out, while a suitable replacement would have emerged from the votes of all of the voters. But, when it came down to Walker vs. the stale candidate put on offer by the Democratic Party establishment, the pale Democrat was found wanting. It was a sad end to a great popular movement, betrayed by the inadequacies of modern party politics.