It is becoming clear that the Wisconsin battle was a strategic political blunder for President Obama and the Democratic Party. The decision by the Democratic Party and its allies to draw a line in the sand in Wisconsin was the wrong strategy, in the wrong state, at the wrong time, on the wrong issue, and executed in the wrong way.
The White House, which for the last two years seemed so tone deaf over health care, jobs, and the economy, may again be displaying a stunning political miscalculation. Unless the Democrats pull the plug on their ill-conceived Wisconsin campaign, the statewide and national backlash now beginning to emerge may continue to resonate all the way to the 2012 presidential elections.
It will take time to unearth exactly who designed and sold the Wisconsin strategy to the president. But what is emerging is that the White House may have developed two strategies for 2011, not one. The first track, clear to us all, was for the president to tack to the right on the national stage, seek the statesmanlike high road, and negotiate deals with national Republicans.
The second strategy, now emerging, was to pick a target outside the beltway that could serve as a broad political narrative, attack it, nationalize it, and use it to rally Obama’s demoralized political base. It was a bold strategy. They chose Madison, Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-tightening initiative, and his effort to rein in public employee unions. They further decided to let loose angry union members serve as shock troops. Wisconsin would be the first test case, which would be replicated in other states, including Ohio, Indiana, and Idaho.
The plan seems to have been born both within the war room of the Democratic National Committee and within the Oval Office. The overall coordination for the operation was the remnants of the president’s 2008 political campaign organization, Organizing for America (OFA). The strategy would be launched by the DNC and by the president, who, during the height of the Egyptian crisis, incongruously granted an exclusive interview to a Milwaukee TV reporter over union policy. While Cairo burned, he took time to decry a Wisconsin governor’s effort to rein in the budget and limit union benefits. Shaping the narrative for the attack, he said that Gov. Scott Walker’s effort “seems like more of an assault on unions.”
The Wisconsin political blitzkrieg on Gov. Walker was not a spontaneous eruption. It is now clear that it was a highly organized operation planned in Washington, D.C., to unleash a national counterattack on the gains made by Republicans and Tea Party activists. Getting OFA and the president to act in close coordination was itself no small feat. The plan included busing in thousands of government employees, arranging for Democratic lawmakers to flee to an adjoining state, flying speakers and political organizers into Madison, organizing thousands to leave their jobs in public safety and in classrooms, and staging rallies inside and outside the statehouse. They even enticed sympathetic doctors to draft bogus doctor excuses for government workers.
It all worked like a charm. Except that it struck all the wrong notes and portrayed all the wrong images. There is nothing more unseemly that to see a president serve as healer in Tucson and a political hack in Madison.