Fall Reckoning

The voters exact vengeance upon the disdainful Democrats.


Before the vote on Nov. 2, humorist P.J. O’Rourke quipped that it wasn’t an election, it was a restraining order. For Democrats in Wisconsin it was an apocalypse.
They lost the governorship; a Senate seat; two congressional seats; both houses of the state Legislature, and, just to run up the score, the office of state treasurer to a guy who ran on a platform of abolishing the job.

The Democrats’ legislative leadership was decapitated. Both the speaker of the Assembly and the Senate majority leader were defeated for re-election.
It was, in short, a political bloodbath of epically gory proportions, and the postmortems and recriminations linger on into a fall that seems somehow brighter and more hopeful.

Predictably, pundits worked the usual clichés (voter angst, anger, the economy) harder than a rented mule. But herewith we offer some observations on the wipeout that was:

The Doyle Factor.

As he rallied legislative support for health care reform, President Obama famously reassured wavering Democrats that things would be different from 1994 because “You have me.” You know the rest. But in Wisconsin, Democrats had Jim Doyle, and that was even worse.

As low as Obama’s popularity had sunk by Election Day, he was an American idol compared with the two-term governor, who was described by the Democratic polling group, PPP, as “one of the most unpopular people holding his position anywhere in the country.” On the eve of the election, Doyle’s approval rating was just 27%, marginally above the popularity of the Chicago Bears.

No matter how strong a campaign Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett ran to succeed Doyle, noted PPP, “it’s rare for a party to hold the governor’s office when its incumbent is so unpopular.”

The Mike Tate Factor.

The youthful chair of the state Democratic Party set the tone for the campaign last year when he reacted to the first stirrings of voter discontent by lashing out at the voters. As it turned out, insulting them was not a brilliant campaign strategy.

Last September, the party chair reacted to a massive Tea Party rally by calling attendees “extremist elements” who “frankly don’t believe in this country.” Rather than taking the brewing taxpayer revolt seriously, Tate compared dissenters to “red-baiting McCarthyites, the Know-Nothings and the KKK.”

No leading Democrat made any attempt to distance himself from Tate’s comments, and by the time Sen. Russ Feingold half-heartedly tried to court Tea Partiers, his appeal, rather predictably, fell flat. So did Tate’s strategy of trying to win the hearts and minds of the voters by calling them ignorant, violent rednecks.

Postscript: The day after his party lost everything but their library cards, Tate extended the olive branch by attributing the electoral tsunami to the “Republican campaign of dissembling, of fear-mongering, of division [that was] was rocketed along by an unprecedented flood of shady money.” And the voters, presumably, are still dumb bigots.

The Overreach Factor.

Wisconsinites got a double dose. In Washington, Democrats rammed through the stimulus package, a $3.5 trillion budget, and Obamacare. Not to be outdone, their counterparts in Madison decided to use their new majorities to push through a $3 billion tax increase, hammering businesses, investors, and job creators across the state, even as unemployment edged above 9%.

Back in June 2009, I wrote: “Not content with wealth redistribution, the budget also taxes telephones, iPod downloads, nursing home beds, smokers, and sick people...Under this budget drivers will not only pay higher gas taxes but also will see their car insurance jump by 40% because of provisions put in at the behest of trial lawyers.”

At the time I wondered: What could they possibly be thinking? That they could ride the wave of Obama’s popularity? That campaign cash from various special interests like the casinos, lawyers, and unions would protect them? That voters wouldn’t notice or would forget by 2010? Were they hoping the economy would roar back and that they would all be forgiven?

Or maybe they just couldn’t help themselves: They had waited so long for this binge and owed so much to so many special interest groups they just…couldn’t… stop…themselves from spending, gouging, and partying.

Since the same story played out in Madison as in Washington, the reaction in Wisconsin was magnified. The reckoning came Nov. 2.

The Boondoggle Factor.

The billion-dollar high-speed train became a shiny symbol of that overreach, a boondoggle as costly as it was pointless. Gov. Doyle and his would-be successor Tom Barrett embraced the train long and hard, touting the gusher of free money from the federal government.

Despite the hype, the public never warmed to the train, which would actually go only about 71 miles an hour, cost more than $800 million, and create about 50 permanent jobs. Even people who were bad at math thought that was a bad deal. Economist Robert Samuelson called the plan “a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause.”

In a campaign that turned on the economy and fiscal responsibility, the train was a perfect example of the sort of spending that you should avoid if you are broke.
Two days after Walker’s decisive win, the state Department of Transportation suspended work on the project.

The Disconnect Factor.

For 18 years, Sen. Russ Feingold bragged that he visited every one of the state’s 72 counties for “listening sessions.” When it came to Obamacare, though, the meetings morphed into “I’m-not-listening-to-you” sessions, and voters noticed. The voters also weren’t buying the “maverick” thing anymore.

It’s the Economy, Stupid, Factor.

Milwaukee has the fourth-worst poverty rate in the country and one of the worst racial disparities in employment; Wisconsin lags behind the country in per capita income. But late in the campaign, Democrat Tom Barrett was campaigning on stem cells and abortion.

Remember when it was Republicans who were the ones who tried to use social wedge issues to win elections? No, it didn’t work for them, either.

The Quality Candidate Factor.

Despite the wave of red nationally, Republicans didn’t win everywhere. But in Wisconsin, there were no Christine O’Donnells, and no civil war between the Tea Party and the mainstream Republican Party. Instead, in Scott Walker and Ron Johnson, conservatives had two of the strongest candidates in the country.
Walker had made himself a hero by holding the line for eight years in heavily liberal Milwaukee County, while Johnson, a political newcomer, captured the imagination of an electorate looking for a fresh face.

Further down the ticket, Republicans had fresh faces from Paul Ryan to Sean Duffy to newly elected state Sen. Leah Vukmir. Not only did they all win, but Walker, Johnson, and Ryan now seem poised to become national stars on the right.

Democrats across the country ran hard against Ryan’s “Roadmap for America,” playing the scare-granny card hard in an attempt to discredit his budget plans. They failed; and if the election marked the definitive end of Social Security reform as the third rail of politics, it will give Ryan crucial momentum in gathering support for a fiscally sound budget as the new chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Ryan in 2012? Or is it too early to make Christmas lists?

Charles J. Sykes, the WI editor, is the author of six books and hosts a daily radio show on AM620 WTMJ in Milwaukee.