To me, the headline seemed irrefutable: “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”
Yet coming as it did, from a pair of mainstream scholars, the assertion in a Washington Post op-ed ignited a flood of charges and countercharges.
The thesis, based on 40 years of experience in Washington, D.C. by Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, was without nuance: “Never have we seen (politics) this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”
“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
That also aptly describes Scott Walker, don’t you think?
If nothing else, Wisconsin’s Republican governor is in tune with these tea party times, when a mainstream conservative like Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar can tumble in a primary to a lightweight extremist, as happened last week in Indiana.
That same day, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett easily defeated three fellow Democrats in our gubernatorial recall primary and will face Walker in three weeks, proving that Walker strategists had been correct all along in targeting Barrett as the governor’s most dangerous foe on June 5.
Barrett defeated his closest challenger, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, by 24 percentage points, yet much of the post-vote analysis was, for Democrats, somehow spun as a negative.
First was much ballyhooing about the strong turnout in the Republican primary for Walker (an “astonishing” 626,538 votes, gushed the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) despite a lack of significant opposition. Then there was how Barrett’s large victory margin marked some sort of Waterloo for public labor unions, which had strongly backed Falk, raising questions about labor’s capacity now to boost Barrett with dollars and get-out-the-vote efforts.
This two-pronged analysis caused some hand-wringing among progressives last week, but let’s step back a second.
First, regarding Republican turnout, sure, Walker’s base is just as passionate as Barrett’s. But Walker has already spent millions on the race thanks to the jaw-dropping amounts he’s received from out-of-state big shots. In just the first part of this year he raised some $13 million. With that much advertising firepower, wouldn’t you expect him to be able to motivate and turn out his base?
Second, on the topic of influence of labor leaders, the claims by the Walker camp are mutually exclusive. For many months, Walker and his lieutenants attributed recall fervor solely to “out-of-state labor bosses.” But last week, they were chortling about how labor has lost its clout as evidenced by Falk’s weak showing. So which is it?
It is true that Falk had strong backing from public union labor leaders, but those leaders notably stepped back from attacking Barrett, even pulling an early anti-Barrett television ad, and have linked arms with Barrett since the primary. (Yes, it would have helped if pro-union television money that was spent boosting Falk had instead been directed to anti-Walker messaging to offset the glut from the other side, but that’s not worth worrying about now.)
So instead of viewing Barrett’s margin as a sign of labor weakness, it is actually a signal of strength and unity among those who oppose Walker. With revulsion for the governor’s performance the unifying motive, the focus during the primary was on selecting the Democrat most likely to beat Walker, and there are many who named that as Barrett’s strongest attribute.
Beyond those points, let’s do a reset.
With three weeks to go, polling indicates the race is essentially a dead heat with predictions of a razor thin outcome, to be decided by a tiny handful of undecided voters.
So how does Barrett appeal to these rare and precious undecided voters?
To be sure, many are outraged by the unbending tea party ideology that has swept national GOP politics and has guided this governor at all times on every issue, but that is not new.
Here is another idea: Do everything possible to make the choice about integrity, the kind of honesty, fairness, ethics and morality we look for in our leaders as we do in our friends.
Let’s begin with honesty.
Late Thursday the Journal Sentinel made public a video showing Walker bragging to a billionaire donor that he would help turn Wisconsin into an anti-union “right-to-work” state using a “divide and conquer” approach that started with his attack on public unions, an intent he has repeatedly denied in public comments.
There is also Walker’s record for honesty as measured by PolitiFact Wisconsin, which as of last week had found 31 of the 48 Walker claims they investigated to be at least “mostly false” all the way to “pants-on-fire false.”
Then there is fairness.
Most of us in Wisconsin, I think, expect that government will give everyone a fair shake. But last week an investigative story in the Wisconsin State Journal alleged a Walker political appointee in the Department of Natural Resources protected a campaign contributor from sanctions even though human waste his company dumped from septic tanks threatened to poison wells close to nearby homes.
The story was consistent with a broader narrative about how Walker has emasculated environmental and other regulations in the state to favor business over consumer interests, especially for his wealthy contributors. That probably explains the Walker administration’s ugly if amateurish attack on the professional ethics of the reporter who broke the story.
Then there is the notion of morality and ethics.
Last week yet another witness, now 12 in all, was granted immunity in the ongoing probe into potentially illegal political activity conducted on government time while Walker was Milwaukee County’s executive.
Even as Walker continues to deny any personal wrongdoing, his campaign transferred $60,000 to a legal defense fund from campaign coffers to cover his lawyer’s fees. The probe has been prominently reported in Milwaukee and Madison, but has been less publicized in smaller media markets in Wisconsin. It merits more attention. (Given Walker’s millions, can you imagine how much paid television time would have been devoted to the investigation by now if it instead concerned Barrett?)
Finally, Walker and his allies have acted as if the 1 million voters who supported Barrett, his 2010 opponent, deserve no voice whatsoever in how their government works. Walker’s arrogance seems unprecedented. I frequently wonder what the hard-right talk radio types would say if the shoe were on the other foot. For many of us, that dictatorial style is Walker’s signature offense.
Yes, this recall election should pivot even more on integrity than on ideology. The contrast between candidates is as great on that as it is on left-right politics.
For those of us who have known and followed Barrett, he comes across as a straight-forward, self-effacing guy, an affable and experienced executive who seems likely to lead as a “big tent” governor by involving political foes.
Barrett would get to decisions by starting near the political center. In fact, I bet he would offend liberal Democrats by being insufficiently obsessed with political payback and instead choose the politics of inclusion and the path toward healing.
In other words, the antithesis of Scott Walker.