Your mainstream media came out of Wisconsin with only one takeaway to their name -- that the Wisconsin recall election is a harbinger of the larger presidential race.
It's important to note that news organizations did not extract this idea from detailed analysis, thoughtful critique or an on-the-ground study of what was going on in the lives of Wisconsinites. And it didn't matter much that their conclusions were not supported by the evidence. It was simply the narrative that they had erected in the first place, which they were prepared to confirm in advance.
Which is too bad because there was a lot of important information to extract from Wisconsin's Season of Constant Recall. Here then, is our story of lessons learned and bridges burned.
Recall, not rerun. As we've already noted, there was never much reason to suspect that Tom Barrett was going to somehow prevail in a rerunning of an election in which he had already been defeated. Barrett's 2010 defeat was not a close one. His 2012 defeat wasn't even as close as the original. Barrett may need to run a third time for it to sink in, but it's pretty clear that Wisconsinites just aren't that into being governed by him.
It's pretty clear that Barrett really needed somebody who could explain to him that this particular election was not like any of the other ones he had been in and that very specific issues animated the anti-Scott Walker sentiment in the first place. Barrett seemed to be the only person in Wisconsin who didn't know it was a recall election. It's hard to seize the moment as its flood if you're playing in a puddle.
Fast money stays fast, slow money stays slow, and infinite money stays infinite. Beyond Barrett's deficiencies, the Wisconsin recall election is an object lesson in the power of money in the Citizens United era. Big labor unions fundraise for cycles; they marshal resources for the purpose of being there just when their candidates need them.
But Gov. Scott Walker's plutocratic patrons are ready to go anytime, and when Walker got his fundraising window, they made sure it was filled to the brim.
There is a lot of after-action silver-lining divining going on within the anti-Walker community that goes a little like this: "Hey, at least we forced them to spend tens of millions of dollars to save his job." This misses the point. The types of donors who backed Walker can spend that sort of money every Tuesday from now until the end of the year if they need to. The Barrett side can't. And that's the reality now.
Revising Citizens United. With that in mind, let's go back to the way the Citizens United decision was popularly described -- a means by which wealthy donors, corporations and labor unions can raise infinite sums of money for campaign contributions. We can effectively zero out labor unions as a beneficiary of the Citizens United ruling, as we now know that everyone else's money can be put to work to pass laws that limit their ability to raise money in the first place. Citizens United should get credit for being the mechanism by which forces against workers effectively killed their limited clout by executing a plutocratic pincer maneuver.
Recall elections aren't that popular. Howard Fineman brought back some critical intel from his contacts on the ground in Wisconsin that didn't end up getting a lot of attention: Lots of Wisconsin voters were just sour on the whole notion of the recall election in principle. Generally speaking, Democratic voters only support the notion of "recall for any reason" by a slight majority -- a sizable number prefer that it be used only in the case of misconduct. (We know that "misconduct" could be defined in relative terms. But the point is, the passion isn't there.)
And it showed: While the level of turnout was respectable enough compared with national turnout trends, it still lagged behind the turnout that Wisconsin voters achieved in 2008. The popular takeaway is that Barrett failed to turn out voters.
But we're going to suggest that the process actually succeeded in turning voters off. Most of the anecdotal accounts we were hearing going into the campaign's final week taught us that Wisconsinites were just miserable and sick of the recall season -- even those who participated in it.
And the fact of the matter is that lots of Wisconsinites -- even those who might ordinarily vote against Walker -- were of the mind that the will of the majority should be allowed to play out. And whatever you think of the stakes in the recall, this is not an indecent sentiment.
Labor needs to rethink things. I'll not belabor -- ha, ha -- the point. When you come at the king you'd best not miss. Labor missed. The end. I'll simply recommend Left Business Observer's Doug Henwood's "un-sugar-coated" take on the matter. A year ago, he wrote:
It’s the same damn story over and over. The state AFL-CIO chooses litigation and electoral politics over popular action, which dissolves everything into mush. Meanwhile, the right is vicious, crafty, and uncompromising. Guess who wins that sort of confrontation?
As you can imagine, the recall results do not surprise him. And it's hard to argue with his reality check:
A major reason for the perception that unions mostly help insiders is that it’s true. Though unions sometimes help out in living wage campaigns, they’re too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class. Public sector workers rarely make common cause with the consumers of public services, be they schools, health care, or transit.
That means that if unions ever want to turn things around -- and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that we’ll never have a better society without a reborn labor movement -- they have to learn to operate in this new reality. Which means learning to act politically, to agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.
At the same time, labor needed to put up some sort of fight. As Josh Eidelson noted, "While Walker’s survival will embolden other anti-union politicians, they’d be far bolder already if labor had just rolled over as rights were stripped away last year."
Fair enough. Still: Come at the king, best not miss, etc.
The bottom line is that divide and conquer worked. If representatives of the media had been of the mind that reaching out to ordinary Americans was a valuable thing to do, there might have been more reporting on what was really at stake in Wisconsin. But most political reporters don't see any currency in having access to poor people, which is why what matters to them is how this recall reflects what could happen to other affluent political elites.
The real story here is that the strategy of rechannelling all that post-crash, populist angst and anger away from the malefactors of the financial crisis and directing it back at the larger middle-class community worked like a charm in Wisconsin. Scott Walker performed to his patrons' expectations, successfully creating a zero-sum game in which one group of have-nots was pitted against another group of have-nots. You can distill Scott Walker's message down to this: "The reason you are suffering is because your neighbor takes home a pension and a health benefit."
Ideally, you would want the group that lacks these slight advantages to agitate for a leveling up. When those on the rung above join forces with those on the rung below, these agitations can succeed. Walker managed to get them agitating for a leveling down instead. And so, in Wisconsin, there is genuine enthusiasm among one group of working Wisconsinites that another group of working Wisconsinites have been impoverished.
As Jonathan Chait noted on New York magazine's site, "Walker has pioneered a tactic that will likely become a staple of Republican governance. Fortune favors the bold."
HOW WOULD ROMNEY RULE?
In the past week, we've seen the polls begin to tighten in the 2012 presidential race, as Mitt Romney has shucked off all those badly overhyped concerns that he would be unable to get the support of his party's base. Taken together, Romney's gotten out of the "does he even have a chance" cloud and is now enjoying the first real dawning of the notion that he could actually win in November.
Not coincidentally, we have also noticed that for the first time, political observers have started to wrestle with the question of how a President Romney might govern. Aside from the emerging electoral possibilities, the question is intriguing because Romney makes it geniunely difficult to answer. Romney's convictions, if he has any at all, are a mystery. He has a reputation for being risk averse. He doesn't seem to be all that interested in any sort of call to action or a national mission that America could undertake. And last week, even Peggy Noonan was urging Romney to "give us a plan."
Of course, by not "giving us a plan," Romney buys himself some critical time. Once Romney starts presenting priorities, Team Obama Re-Elect will have some tangible things to attack. In the meanwhile, Obama's troops are left to prosecute various ghosts of the past -- Romney's record at Bain and his tenure in the Massachusetts State House. Members of the Obama camp are also primed to paint Romney as a President Dubya 2.0. But at the moment, all they can do is point at the dot. Not until Romney offers up something will they be able to attempt to draw a line.
But, in the absence of these tangibles, we have some speculation. And it's not all unreasonable. For instance, there is the possibility that Romney is a "secret Keynesian." Joe Weisenthal made this point in April on Business Insider -- albeit in an intentionally sly and cynical way:
First of all, we know that Romney would be opposed to any across-the-board tax hikes. Now granted, technically the Bush tax cuts would expire before he assumes office. But you could surmise that he'd quickly work to make sure taxes stayed low (or went lower) the second he got into office.
Furthermore, you can be sure that the Republicans in Congress would quickly forget all about austerity and spending cuts. This is because austerity is purely the domain of opposition parties. Remember, Republicans were pro-deficit, and pro-entitlement expansion under Bush and Reagan. Deficit cutting only became part of the party's ideology under Obama. It's safe to surmise they'd quickly revert to form once there were no longer any political capital to be accumulated via undermining the President.
And though Romney himself his talked about favoring cutting, capping, and balancing the US budget, you don't have to ever take Mitt Romney's stated policy goals too seriously since he's, well, Mitt Romney.
Ezra Klein on the Washington Post's site added to this with an obvious point: If Romney is elected, the GOP will stop threatening to destroy the economy all the time. Romney is going to get clean debt-ceiling bills every time he needs to have one.
The GOP, after all, isn't sincerely concerned with the debt. And the Democrats aren't of the mind that their policy goals should be obtained by threatening to destroy the global economy. It's possible, I suppose, that the Democrats will pursue some sort of "turnabout is fair play" maneuver, but it's not really in their nature, perhaps to their lasting detriment!
So the "Romney is a secret Keynesian scenario" goes like this: Romney does all the same stuff Obama tried to do, only Romney gets lots of GOP votes. The prescription works, Romney gets the credit, the GOP dines out on saving the economy, everyone forgets and forgives four years of obstruction, and the Republican Party dominates elections for some time to come.
Of course, all this requires the GOP to return to its previous rut, and forego any of the ambitions that certain members may have undertaken to achieve in the meantime. And while Weisenthal has faith in the fact that "austerity is purely the domain of opposition parties," we mustn't forget about Paul Ryan, who has made the promotion of "Hunger Games"-style austerity his life's work. And unlike Romney, Ryan has convictions to which he is firmly wed.
That's where we get the scenario that Jonathan Chait identifies, in which members of the Republican Party, recognizing that demography is not on their side in the long term, have "concluded that they must strike quickly and decisively at the opposition before all hope is lost." This strike includes enshrining Paul Ryan's Randian True Believer vision as America's permanent alternative fiscal scenario:
The connecting thread of my last two print stories for [New York magazine] -- the first on the GOP’s almost panicked now-or-never focus on 2012, and the second on the rise of Paul Ryan -- is that the Republicans, led by Ryan, have made a strategic decision that the economic crisis offers them an expiring window of opportunity to pass the agenda of their dreams. Should they win the election, it is vital that they use their majority immediately and to maximal effect. That’s why Ryan insisted on boxing the party in by getting his fellow Republicans to take dangerous votes on his budget in 2011 and again this year despite having no chance of signing [it] into law under Obama. By making virtually all Republicans in Congress take the vote now, they will have a hard time claiming next year that voters don’t want such radical change.
This is why Grover Norquist sees Romney's lack of a core as his best quality. All Norquist wants from Romney is for him to bring to the White House a hand in which he can grip a pen.
These two scenarios are distinct in that in the first, Romney does something popular ("save" the economy) and everyone milks it for long-term power, while in the second, the GOP uses Romney to use that power to execute a final-stage plan. In the latter scenario, the relative unpopularity of Ryan's proposals could tarnish Romney in the eyes of voters, but in the latter scenario, nobody cares about Romney as anything other than the temporary handmaiden to the desired outcome. Romney might bring with him, to the White House, strong-willed advisers who'll have his ear on matters like earning a second term and cementing a legacy.
Either way, the one emerging consistency in all the different concepts of how Romney might govern if he becomes president is that he'll largely be doing a lot of shutting up and falling in line.
NOAM SCHIEBER WOULD LIKE MITT ROMNEY TO STOP LYING ABOUT HIS BOOK: Talking Points Memo's Sahil Kapur reached out to Schieber, author of "The Escape Artists," after Romney cited his book on the stump, and struck pay dirt:
“There are a couple of claims wound up together there in Romney’s remarks,” Scheiber said. “One claim is that [Obama’s team] knew that the Affordable Care Act itself -- something about the Act -- would derail the recovery … They do not believe that it’s substantively true. So it’s not something that they felt, and it’s not something I argue in the book.”
But by far the strangest lie Romney is telling people about Schieber's book is that it's "written in a way that’s apparently pro-President Obama." It's not. Right there on the cover are the words: "How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery." This is not a matter of ambiguity, so why Romney would allege that -- he clearly doesn't need to! -- is almost beyond our ability to explain.
We've found, on occasion, that when someone is so committed to lying, sometimes it's not good enough to tell the truth even when the truth is good enough to achieve the desired end result. That's probably what's going on with Romney, although it's also possible that he has such contempt for his supporters that he figures that they can't read the book on their own.
SO MUCH FOR THE BELTWAY CONVENTIONAL WISDOM, PART MMCCCLXXXVII: When Team Obama Re-Elect launched its round of attacks on Mitt Romney's Bain Capital legacy, the Washington media -- aided by Acela-stan Democrats beholden to private equity donors -- declared them to be a failure. They forgot that they weren't the intended audience. They also forgot that the messaging wasn't put out there for a snap judgment. And they were wrong, which is hardly surprising, as this Salon post shows:
Despite all the hand wringing and recriminations from Cory Booker and other Northeast elites about the Obama campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital, a new poll shows it could work well in the industrial Midwest. In 12 battleground states, 47 percent said they think private equity firms “care only about profits” and often create layoffs, while just 38 percent said they think the firms “help the American economy grow.” That margin is even bigger in places like Ohio, where the gap is 16 percentage points.
The intended audience got the message.
BETTER KNOW A THIRD PARTY: The Green Party is still a thing and Jill Stein -- "mother, housewife, physician, longtime teacher of internal medicine, and pioneering environmental-health advocate" -- is its nominee. She beat out, among other people, television comedienne Roseanne Barr, who does not seem to have been aware that there was a nominating process going on all this while.
THE ROMNEY VEEPSTAKES: This week's political figure who wants to remind us that he does not want to be Mitt Romney's vice president is Jeb Bush. Again, we think? The point is, Jeb has sort of recognized that this is, at the moment, no country for conciliatory men. And in giving voice to that conciliatory spirit, he basically eliminated himself from contention. (But perhaps he's kept something more important alive.)
In other news, it really appears that we are headed for the Great Rob Portman Anti-Climax. (We realize that "Rob Portman" and "anti-climax" are essentially synonymous.)
THE SPECULATRON ELECTORAL MAP PROJECTION: Everyone else is making custom-made electoral map projections, so we will, too. And if you go to the Huffington Post election dashboard, you can, too. This is our first foray into this sort of thing this year, so some important notes up front.
You should not use our projections as the basis of an important wager. You should not interpret our projections as something that's necessarily wedded to rigorous statistical science. We are not Mark Blumenthal. His projection is here. We do our best to take good polling data and stir in our relative optimism or pessimism about the economy. But sometimes, we make calls because our Aunt Linda in Ohio says her basset hound has been behaving strangely. You should feel free to yell at us about how wrong we are. In fact, this wouldn't be any fun unless you did.
Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more