How Republicans Cheat Democrats - and Democrats Cheat Themselves

Bill Clinton and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Bill Clinton and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett at a 'Get Out The Vote' Rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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The volume of explanation for why Republican Scott Walker won and Democrat Tom Barrett lost last week's Wisconsin recall election has been overwhelming, which is as it should be: This was a very, very important election.

Some have pointed out that it is only natural that Walker won when his side outspent the opposition by a ratio of eight, or ten, or twelve times to one (there is no definitive figure, which is precisely the problem: our new campaign finance universe deliberately makes it hard to keep track of all the money). A blunt reader of Talking Points memo points out that this was a recall election aimed at preserving public employee unions, but public employee unions simply are not popular. Yet that explanation runs up against the fact that last year in Ohio, a state equally as purplish as Wisconsin, voters crushed their reactionary governor's attempt to pass the same sort of anti-union law there, by a vote of 61 percent to 39. In Ohio, where the law allows for statutory repeal, pro-union forces were able to strike while the iron was hot, just months after the offending act's passage; in Wisconsin, where there is no statutory repeal, the law dictated that voters had to wait almost a year after the passage of the law to vote to recall their governor – meaning the problem was short attention spans and simple legal mechanics.

All good, sound, analysis – but my best explanation goes deeper, and says much more not just about Wisconsin, but about the entire structure of our political firmament: how Democrats do business, how Republicans do business, and how the world works as a result. My story is symbolized by the Election Day Slap:

Now, understand, I don't know all the details here – for all I know the slapper is some schizophrenic maniac, smacking powerful people up and down the Dairy State. But the symbolism still stands. Apparently what happened was that Democratic candidate Tom Barrett gave a concession speech even though there were still votes to be counted. His supporters in the room were livid, according to reports: they had devoted their blood, sweat, and tears to what they saw as a fight for all they held dear, and believed the man to whom they had pledged themselves was quitting before the fight was even over. One of them approached him and said she'd like to slap him. Mayor Barrett said he'd rather be hugged. He leaned down for said hug. And got slapped instead.

And therein hangs a tale: about grassroots Democrats who act like activists, who hold that slaps are sometimes what it takes to get the political job done, and Democratic leaders who act like you can solve all political problems with a hug. Which, pretty much, was Tom Barrett's entire election platform. As I explained here in May, the leading candidate in the primary to face Walker in the recall ran with a take-no-prisoners strategy to restore union rights: she pledged to veto any budget that didn't restore collective bargaining. That meant that if she won the statehouse, Republican legislators in Madison could hold on to their anti-union law only on pain of shutting down the state.

Then, out of nowhere, little more than two months before Election day, a new candidate announced: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Two days earlier, he'd had a $400-a-plate fundraising luncheon, closed to the media, hosted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Here was a signal: Barrett was the Democratic Party Establishment's man. And the Democratic Establishment, in this age of Barack Obama, does things in a very certain way: it never takes any prisoners, never takes the most gutsy path (this is even true for the vaunted "tough guy" Rahm Emanuel, whose standing orders as White House chief of staff was never to take on any fights unless victory was assured in advance).

Barrett immediately announced a different plan to reverse the anti-union law if he became governor: He would call a special legislative session, in which he would introduce a standalone repeal bill. He would make it hard for his side on purpose. He would make the lions lay down with the lambs, Obama style. He would sell himself to the electorate as the peacemaker. He would follow the Bill Clinton strategy, triangulate against his own side. If swing voters hate union cronyism, he would prove he wasn't a union crony. "I'm not the union guy," he would say on the campaign trail – he was the guy the unions didn't want; they even tried to talk him out of running.

There are many problems with this strategy. The first has to do with the way the media works. Programmed robotically to see any political issue in polarized terms, journalists will register "leftist" pugnacity no matter how conciliatory a Democrat behaves in actual fact – as with Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama now. The second problem is that it requires Democrats to simultaneously surrender the actual benefits of being bold, tough partisans. The Republicans enjoy the grassroots energy of a fierce field army on the ground convinced they are fighting for nothing less than the survival of civilization (meanwhile they harvest moderates in a far more efficient way – using their money advantage to saturate the electorate with slick TV ads). Democrats appeal to moderates as their activist strategy – although, in an old saw Democrats have long ago forgotten, moderates are the people who don't knock on doors on election day. Liberal activists who show up do so reluctantly – having already seen their candidate sell them out.

The Wisconsin story was told in a tale of two rallies. I wrote about one of them last week—the dazzling, transcendent spectacle of Madison union activists rocking like it was 1964 and Martin Luther King was preaching to them about having a dream. Another I didn't bother to write about—because it was simply too boring, even though it featured a former president of the United States.

In jeans, his chalk-white hair flopping in the breeze, William Jefferson Clinton hit every one of the Barrett campaign's talking points. Scott Walker, he said, had launched Wisconsin into a civil war – and a vote for Barrett was a vote to end the civil war. "Constant conflict," he said, was "a dead-bang loser." The reason people admire Wisconsin, he said, was for its tradition of holding "vigorous political debates, closely held elections" after which "people got together and figured out what to do!" All over the world, successful communities were the ones featuring "creative cooperation .... The 'divide and conquer' strategy is nuts." He talked about the Tea Party Republican who unseated Richard Lugar, condemning the incumbent Republican Indiana Senator "for working together with a President from another party on national security," promising, "I will never compromise." He told stories of Democrats working with Republicans; of business working with unions – and who can argue with that?

Well, for one thing, one model of cooperation he pointed to, Rahm Emanuel's new "infrastructure bank" for Chicago, is actually a hustle for back-room corporate giveaways. For another, this is not how Bill Clinton won his presidential elections. In 1992, he won by promising to "put people first." And in 1996 he won by fighting Republican attempts to cut Medicare—promising he would never compromise on that, never sit down at the table with Republicans seeking to roll back basic middle class entitlements.

Finally, in his speech Clinton pulled back from the entire affair, saying he didn't even really like recall elections in the first place.

The intensity in the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand affair in Milwaukee was about a quarter of the size of the rally in Madison. Tom Barrett, for his part, made plain which rally he personally preferred: the boring one. In Milwaukee, in a Brewer windbreaker, he introduced Clinton. In Madison, he showed up while things were winding down, never took the stage, and spent a few minutes walking through the crowd. After all, his main campaign argument was that he wasn't the activist guy.

And then he lost. For many reasons, I'm sure. But most of all, I'd argue, for campaigning like a Democrat. Just like Scott Walker won for many reasons – but not least because he campaigned as a Republican.

The pattern, every time it repeats, leaves Democrats in agony. How is it possible, Democratic partisans ask, that 36 percent of voters in union households went for the union-busting Walker?

It is kind of like the question we asked in 2000: How is it possible that Bill Clinton's vice president lost when Clinton had just delivered the nation eight years of peace and prosperity?

And in 2004: How is it possible that George Bush won reelection after lying us into a massively unpopular war in Iraq?

And in 2010: How is it possible that all those Democrats lost in Democratic districts against all those Tea Party weirdos?

Well, at a certain point in these "How is it possible?" discussions, you have to get down to the nut cutting: Republicans win because Republcians cheat. They cheat in each and every election, systematically and predictably. They crap out last-minute turnout-killing lies: in this last, for instance, that people who signed recall petitions automatically had their vote recorded against Walker and so didn't have to go to the polls; and in 2006, in at least fifty different congressional races, an overwhelming volume of calls that appeared to be from the Democratic candidate, dozens in a row, designed to so anger potential Democratic voters that they'd stay home from the polls.

They render Democratic phone lines useless: In 2006, pundette Laura Ingraham did it by telling her radio listeners to deluge a voter protection hotline with calls; this last week by blasting out text messages inviting the same for Tom Barrett's campaign headquarters. They intimidate voters on Election Day in minority precincts, wearing scary uniforms and warning those with outstanding warrants to stay away if they don't want to be arrested. They push out horror-show media – like the Scott Walker TV commercial with the baby who was beaten to death, a crime somehow laid at Tom Barrett's feet; or the mailers the Republican National Committee sent out in 2004 to Arkansans and West Virignias that the Bible would be "banned" if "you don't vote." More prosaically, they retail statistical lies: in 2000, that Bush's proposed tax cuts would not predominantly benefit the rich; last Tuesday, that the federal government said Wisconsin added 30,000 jobs.

This kind of stuff doesn't really get reported, or noticed: it happens too late to get into the news before the polls open (that's the point of the tactics), and then, once the polls close, all the media oxygen is taken up with horse-race stuff (the bad guys know that too). Bringing this stuff up also violates a sort of unspoken faux-macho journalist code:  "That's politics," they say; "both sides do it" (they don't); and if the victimized campaign brings it up, they're just whining. The bad guys work with this bias very effectively, for instance  keeping a handy mental file of isolated, occasional Democratic abuses – the one incident you hear about over and over was the tire-slashing of Republican get-out-the-vote vehicles in Milwaukee eight years ago, for which four Democratic campaign workers including the son of a congresswoman went to jail – to feed journalists' both-sides-do-it brain-deadedness.

Someday, some clever political scientist might figure out a way to quantify just how many points on election day Democrats have to make up to bring things to square. Until that point – or probably even after that point – we can expect the usual Wednesday morning diet of earnest reflections on what the polling just past "says" about the electorate. Republicans will keep pushing, pushing, pushing their vision for what kind of world they want to live in – union and public-employee free. Democrats, free of any particular vision for society at all, will go into "battle" retailing themselves as the nicer fellows in the contest, and earnestly hope the electorate goes along.

The answer is not for Democrats to cheat. But it begins with the Democratic establishment doing business in a way that doesn't make their most devoted partisans feel like slapping them upside the head.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

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