No, it wasn’t — stolen that is, the recall election, though the same may not be said about our hopes and faith in this state. If prayer is the last refuge of a scoundrel (at least according to Lisa Simpson — who may or may not have been unwittingly subverting the famous quote by Samuel Johnson, for whom “patriotism” was the last refuge), then I would add that denial and conspiracy are the last bastions for liberals to talk amongst themselves, scuttling underground while licking their wounds after losing an election.
I am writing this the day after the day after the election, mostly because I needed to take yesterday off. I didn’t hole myself up in some locked room brooding. But I did avoid all media and as much mention of the news as I could tune out; it all hurt too much. Lord knows I am used to the post-election blues (or black-and-blues in this case), but this loss is worse than others. For years I have been involved and invested in various other campaigns, be they for individual candidates running for office or specific issues to be voted on via referendum question. Nothing smarts as much as this. Nothing. Yes, this too shall pass, as all things must. Be right now it just hurts like hell.
I went for a long solo paddle in my kayak Wednesday early evening and well into the night, to clear my head, to think clearly and try to put this spectacular debacle into perspective. The flow of river current coupled with a beautiful landscape that is punctuated with spontaneous wildlife flourishes can never be underestimated! So here is what I have tried to put together to make sense out of the mess. Feel no such obligation to read what may well be redundant by now or still too close to home. I beg your forgiveness if any of this scribble borders on the solipsistic.
1. The hardest one to accept: we are not Wisconsin, not us here in Madison, or in Dane County, or in Milwaukee. Whoever we are (or think we are) and whatever we do here in Madison, we must understand, at least acknowledge, that we are perfectly offset by the three horses of the apocalypse, by which I mean Waukesha County, Washington County, and Ozaukee County, the christened Jerusalem of conservatism in Wisconsin. Another bitter pill we need to swallow: they’re better at getting out the vote than we are. They are, period. Here is an interactive map to see how each county voted Tuesday night. It’s worth looking at and contemplating. Walker won Washington, Waukesha, and Ozaukee counties by 76, 72, and 71 percent, respectively. Contrast these statistics with Dane and Milwaukee counties, the two most liberal in the state, which went for Barrett 69 and 63 percent, respectively. This discrepancy cannot be casually dismissed. Failing to accept this reality enables us to continue in our own bubbles surrounded by reality and scratching our heads in a crestfallen fog each election night. Or blaming rigged voting machines, crooked clerks, poll workers in cahoots with the GOP, whatever.
I’m no demographer or sociologist (I don’t even like to play one on this blog!), so I cannot speculate about the relative homogenization of, say, Waukesha County compared to Dane or Milwaukee. Of course the latter two counties have more heterogeneous populations — and poverty. I’m not suggesting that Waukesha and Dane are like diametrically-opposed twins. Furthermore, the “bubble surrounded by reality” epithet could just as rationally be applied to suburblets like Pewaukee and Port Washington as they are Madison. But they got more bubbles than we do. And in those bubbles lie more activated voters. This is a numbers game all about cast ballots. It’s a small comfort that the Lake Superior counties are solidly and reliably blue, as is La Crosse, even the reservation of Menominee (which went for Barrett by a commendable 73 percent — but how many folks actually live in that county, how many actual ballots does that county comprise?). But it can be argued that our best defense is to countervail the Republican lockhold of the counties surrounding Milwaukee, while leaving us totally outnumbered by all the rest of the state. Walker won 60 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. And while Barrett benefited from admirable GOTV efforts in Dane and Milwaukee counties — a 40 percent increase in turnout than in the 2010 election — his numbers across the rest of the state plummeted by 90 percent. No one could win an election with those numbers.
2) It is no accident that one of the banner cries for the right this last year has been “Scott Walker is my hero.” Personally, I find this bumper sticker-plug to be sentimental drivel, but it does give a glimpse into a mindset. Scott Walker is their hero in every Joseph Campbell-mythic sense as well as pop culture blockbuster action movie sense of the term. And he is a rock star of the right, like it or not. It’s been said that liberals fall in love with candidates, while conservatives fall in line. I think that exaggerates both voters’ attitudes, but for Walker, Wisconsin conservatives fell for him, with him, by him, and behind him. And so did the Republican National Committee, big time. Where was the DNC? (“Bueller? Bueller…?”) Nowhere, that’s where. Mike Tate, chairman of the state DNC had to all but plead on National Public Radio for the national operatives to pay attention to what’s happening here and pony up. But they didn’t. Not last year in the heart and heat of it all, not now either. Thanks for nothing, guys!
E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution I think rightly quipped that the Republicans saw this election as something extraordinary, while the Democrats treated it as just another election. Self-appointed pundits can pontificate the day is long about whether there should have been a Democratic primary in the first place or whether some cigar-seanced backroom deal ought to have been hashed out for the sake of the party and the good of the state. Me, I don’t know. But we had lousy to lackluster candidates either way. As much as we may revile Walker, he is seen as supersonic amongst his brethren. Tom Barrett is not — and never has been. (And let’s not even talk about Falk, Vinehout, or LaFollette.) What was his vision for the state? Traffic cones to slow down the Walker juggernaut? The anybody-but-Scott Walker appeal? That goes only so far, and typically not past the insular borders like Madison and Milwaukee where it must, places like Baraboo and Green Bay, Hudson and Chippewa Falls, Tomahawk and Wausau, How would Barrett have handled the budget crisis last year? We have no idea. How would he go about creating jobs? He had no idea. What is/was his vision? Nothing but a simple syllogism. Whatever he would have done and would do differently than Scott Walker is not be Scott Walker, which is the difference. For some of us, both liberals and conservatives alike, con and pro, but this is not enough — never enough — to win over the hearts and minds of the middle-of-the-road voter. Whether you agree with it — whether it even makes you want to puke and pull your hair out — people believe (or want to believe) that Walker is doing right and that things are working. It’s a compelling narrative, much more than a once-failed politician try-trying again whose platform is all negative.
If you stand with Walker, you will fall by him. And if he’s a hero to some, he’s a submarine to me: gives me indigestion and sinks us to the bottom. But so what?
3) Moolah. Yes, filthy lucre. Walker outspent Barrett 7 to 1. Let’s just be real about this and deal with it. Due to peculiar state law, Walker was able to raise sky-high funds thanks to literally limitless donation amounts, and he was able to go on this national circuit tour begging a boon since November 2011. Barrett, meanwhile, could begin only two months before the election itself, and was limited to a cap of $10,000 donations. Roughly 60 percent of Walker’s “war chest” came from out-of-state donations, high-heeled rich folks who could never find Wauwatosa or Ashwaubenon on a map, much less how to pronounce them! About $2 of every five bucks Barrett’s campaign spent came from out of Wisconsin. Walker, again, was held to no $10,000 cap. But it is worth pointing out that 75 percent of his donations that were $10,000 or more were from out of state. In other words, auslanders, not badgers, are deciding what happens in our state more than we ourselves have a say in the matter. Thank the Supreme Court and the Citizens United decision. Yet, despite this, all that Walker and his supporters like to talk about are those “big government” out-of-state unions.
4) Let’s talk about unions for a second. More than 1/3 of union households (36 percent) voted for Walker Tuesday night. Now these are probably private unions, not public ones. But still… I was overwhelmed and heartened by the appearance of private union support, of so-called solidarity, at last year’s protests and occupation at the Capitol. But I now know that this was more symbol than substance. Just as I know that my progressive friends and neighbors will be quick to point out that this apparent incongruity is attributable to Walker’s leaving the private-sector unions alone. And then Diane Hendricks will come to mind, and the viral video of Walker talking about his two-step divide and conquer approach to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state eventually. And then someone will paraphrase Pastor Niemöller’s “First They Came for…” quote portending the shortsighted folly of the private-sector unions. Probably true, but there’s more to this than that… (A future scribble will address this.)
5) But the plain meat-and-potatoes reason why we lost the election may be nothing more than this: people don’t like recalls. I won’t spend any time on the exit polling analysis suggesting that while many voters came out to vote for Walker now, they plan on voting for Obama in November. Who knows? I have as much confidence in the relevant veracity of exit polling indicating a trend as I do a drunken goose flying against the wind telling me tomorrow’s weather. But I do believe that one of the lessons from Tuesday night is that Wisconsinites are rather particular about the grounds for recalling a politician. Even if it is the just deserts of the state GOP to interpret and spin Walker’s victory as constituting a mandate or some such ballot-tested “stet,” a vote for Walker Tuesday night can just as often indicate a disbelief in the recall process itself or whether Scott Walker himself deserved to be recalled from public office, and not just some thumbs-up support of his policies or approach to governance. For this part of the electorate — which is convincingly more than enough to have tipped the scales to decide the election — Scott Walker is guilty of neither malfeasance nor misconduct. (As for crimes and misdemeanors, that may be open for debate still.) Contrast this to that dumb prick of a DA up in Calumet County, Kenneth Kratz, who was actively “sexting” the very woman whose domestic abuse case against her boyfriend he was conducting. Or the alcoholic mayor of Sheboygan whose benders saw him on the sticky floor of some bar arguing with tipped over bar stools more than at city hall. Or, yes, Tom Ament and the Milwaukee County pension scandal, which saw Scott Walker coming into office as county executive. These, arguably, are much worthier of firing someone from office than is recalling a politician because you disagree with their policies (and by “disagree” I mean disgustingly loathe in your soul for the toxic horrors that those policies are).
Counterintuitively, I have to have respect for this sentiment. I may personally disagree with its reasoning or justification, but I do respect its integrity. It says more about Wisconsin than the screaming histrionics of Madison liberals and Waukesha conservatives.
It’s interesting to think that if we were in a British Parliamentary-type world, Walker would have received a resounding vote of no confidence. He either would have been ousted or allowed to remain on condition of changing his cabinet and approach. It would have been a wake-up call, not a green light to be yet more audacious. Alas, we live in a one-vote democracy, for better and sometimes worse.
While knocking on doors and standing on street corners during the last 16 months, often I was met with the question of “why should [so-and-so] be recalled?” This was true especially in those senate districts where I myself do not live but traveled to in hopes of changing the balance of power in the state legislature. Because we do not have the ability to recall a law in Wisconsin, only the lawmaker, I would say time and again. But is that enough to warrant ousting someone from office? Because it’s the next best thing, the only alternative to doing nothing but waiting around in dismay til the next election? That’s a philosophical question that everyone must answer individually. I believe I have come around to see that the answer is no. A recall should be special and rare — and be done on solid grounds. This said, I absolutely believe that we should amend the state constitution to allow the citizenry to recall actual laws. A politician should not be the synecdoche of a law they voted for or against, any more than they should be rendered the patsies or nemeses of other politicians or policies based on a single vote or single legislative session. Who the hell am I to tell someone in Portage or Shorewood Hills, Fond du Lac or Kaukauna, how they should vote for their elected official, just because it nonetheless affects me in Madison? It’s presumptuous, patronizing, and predatory. But, yes, unequivocally, being given the ability to recall legislation and not a legislator when it’s really the legislation about which we’re furious, this I believe we ought to fight for.
I heard a woman on public radio lamenting the trajectory of our progressive state. That’s labeling things fairly broadly. She of course invoked the likes of Fighting Bob LaFollette and Gaylord Nelson. She could have mentioned the socialist mayors of Milwaukee a century ago, too. She also neglected to mention Governor Jeremiah Rusk or Senator Joe McCarthy, or that the birth of the Republican Party and its headquarters are here in Wisconsin, in Ripon. She omitted the 14-year reign of Tommy Thompson and the advent of welfare reform. It’s possible that Reince Priebus — a man with whom I don’t think I have ever once agreed — said it best when he stated that Wisconsin is a “light blue” state that “can turn red under the right circumstances.” Or more plainly, we’re purple — very, very purple. And currently we’re in a rather red phase.
Maybe we are the children of such notables as Bob LaFollette and Gaylord Nelson, but (a) that’s an overstated cliche, and (b) so what? I think of contemporary Wisconsin as the second generation who, now grown up and in charge, considers our forefathers something quaint and arcane, part of the past but no longer applicable. It may well be that public sector unions are seen in the same light. Whether we’re privileged ingrates of the state’s tradition remains to be seen. Or it’s always been a checkered tradition, and we delude ourselves about our commonwealth. Predominantly we come from Scandinavian-German stock, which is to say a people who are fiscally conservative but with a liberal social welfare. In today’s hysteria for austerity, it looks like we lost sight of our values, too obsessed with how much everything costs.