By Ryan Buck
As my flight glided down toward the runway at Outagamie Regional Airport last Thursday, I looked out to the open fields and sparse subdivisons of the distant outskirts of Appleton, Wisconsin, my first thought was how different the landscape was from the departure in Atlanta – all grass and sparse subdivisions as far as the eye could see.
My second thought was that I was going to find an explanation of how Tom Barrett was managing to fall behind in the gubernatorial recall election against Scott Walker.
To be honest, I had stopped paying attention to the recall a long while back, all the sloganeering had long-since turned into background noise I had to get through to see the baby or pet pictures I was looking for. I didn’t even realize the election was coming up until I saw a disappointed friend post an Atlantic Wire article saying Walker was carrying a 7 point lead with only a few days to go. At the same time, polls showed voters favored Obama by a larger margin.
How the heck had that happened?
An evening of watching television made it clear what had gone ‘wrong’ for state democrats and it wasn’t money, it wasn’t “dirty-tricks” and it wasn’t the White House’s decision to abandon much assistance to Barrett’s challenge, those were symptoms, not the disease.
In ad after ad, I watched the Milwaukee mayor’s campaign and supportive PACs blister the airways with ads about precisely two things: an investigation of former aides to the governor (“How far will it go?” – yawn) and decrying a massive tax cut for the wealthy that came at the expense of state funding for public schools. Occasionally, Barrett would tout getting the state back to it’s values of comity and compromise.
In between those ads Gov. Walker and his allies peppered the airways discussing the ‘tough choices’ he’d made to put the state on the right fiscal path and showing serious-looking folks talking about how they were behind Gov. Walker ‘doing what needed to be done’ for the state.
I was dumbstruck, this was the master plan to unseat a sitting governor? To win the independents and moderates? “Vote for me because that other guy is divisive! And, he might have some corrupt cronies, but we can’t say for sure! And, he passed some laws that goes against our state values!”
It was a complete failure to even try to craft any narrative to appeal to anyone that wasn’t already in the base. Reminding those already angry at the Governor and Republicans surely kept the anger high and helped ensure high turnout among the liberal/union base, but what about all the people who didn’t care about state employee pensions outside of how much they’d have to pay for them? What about all the votes who see accusations of corruption as revelatory as claiming people were drinking beer at a Packer game?
What did they have to gain from a change in the governor’s mansion? As far as I could tell, nothing.
Conversations with people drove the point home even further. Walker supporters I talked to were moving forward, the Barrett supporters angry and wanting to turn back the clock. It was clear that Democrats had chosen a strategy based on winning a low-turnout vote on enthusiasm and anger, without the enthusiasm, and heading up against equally motivated opponents who’d bothered to appeal beyond their base. It turns out, they failed, miserably.
I wanted to scream at my left-leaning friends – being angry isn’t enough! People need to vote for you, not just against the other guy!
I was disappointed, not only because, as a liberal, I’d been outraged at some of Gov. Walker’s policies, but also because I have a number of close friends and family that felt personally damaged in a way I’ve not seen in previous political battles (unsurprisingly, the biennial state budgets following gubernatorial elections seem to always be exercises in ox-goring). I found the state capitol protests to be a breath of fresh air, it was good to see people with energy out there every day, even if they’d needed a controversial law to spur them on.
If only there had been a better candidate who could have focused the campaign on a positive vision for the state’s future!
If only the White House had extended more advice and support!
And then I realized why the White House had summarily abandoned any overt support of the recall. The campaign themes that might have made a difference – big spending on meager job creation, a failure to fulfill promises of economic growth, a signature policy achievement that you feel is not just bad policy but illegal and immoral – were the last reasons the administration was going to make a big deal of as reasons to oust an incumbent executive. Not with a much bigger election looming in November would they consider expending significant resources and money to craft a message that would work so easily against them in a few months with voters in a potentially crucial state
The real lesson of Wisconsin is an important one for members of all parties: your righteous anger motivates you, not others. Winning the middle requires having something to vote for, not just to vote against.
As the 2012 presidential campaign unfolds, what I’ll be watching is if and how Mitt Romney finds a way to tell a compelling story about his presidency that doesn’t revolve entirely around promising less economic failure and repealing the health care reform of the Obama administration. Will Democrats and unions in my home state (and several others) finally learn that it’s incumbent on them to appeal to the working-class voters they claim as their rightful base?