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.
For in the end, the images and messages tell the story. The showdown in Madison pits pampered public employees against hard-pressed taxpayers. It portrays union workers as an angry mob against those seeking orderly legislative deliberation. It paints Democratic lawmakers as outlaws on the run, undermining the democratic process. It launched a national debate about the generous salaries and benefits for government workers during a time of economic shortages. And it showcased school teachers who abandoned their children in favor of narrow, partisan political gain.
This is a bad unraveling of a political campaign.
The miscalculation by Democrats is understandable. They still believed Wisconsin was one of the key populist centers for Midwest radicalism. Living on history long past, they envisioned Madison as ground zero for a resurrection of progressivism. It was, after all, the home for progressives’ champions, whose heroes included the La Follette family, led by former Governor Robert La Follette, Sr. The La Follette family has been a radical left Wisconsin political dynasty for the last century. Robert Sr. ran for president under the Progressive Party; his son succeeded him as governor. His other son, Robert, Jr., served in the state Senate for 22 years and led the pre-WWII isolationist movement, a precursor to the present day anti-war movement. In 2010, Doug La Follette was the only surviving Democrat to win statewide office in the November election.
But there also is the lure of Madison, Wisconsin for radicals, many of whom populate the political leadership of the Democratic Party and the unions. Madison was the Midwest home for the far-left counterculture and for the violent, revolutionary Students for a Democratic Society. In 1970, an anti-war van loaded with six barrels of explosives detonated outside the Mathematics building at the University of Wisconsin, killing a physicist who was working late at night. The bombing became a sensation for SDS, and overnight the four suspects were put on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. During one of the many Madison political protests, there was a three-day riot that led to the arrest, twice, of a student activist named Paul Soglin. He was later rewarded by being repeatedly elected mayor of Madison.
Surely behind this long history of progressive left politics, Democrats and union organizers might have thought Madison would be the first place to strike against the belt-tightening moves of a new, untested Republican governor. A line was drawn in the sand, and Madison would become ground zero in the unions’ effort to turn around their political prospects.
But they perhaps were tone deaf about Madison, just as they have been tone deaf nationally. They forgot that Wisconsin has been turning from blue, to purple, to bright red. In the 1990s it was former Republican Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson who drew another line in the sand over welfare reform. He won, and President Bill Clinton signed into law a sweeping change that sought to reward work over welfare. Thompson also was a champion for school choice, a campaign bitterly fought by the same teachers’ union that abandoned their classrooms last week for partisan gain.
Then came the latest 2010 election in Wisconsin in which there was a statewide sweep for Republicans. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), long considered safe, was defeated. The governor and lieutenant governor swept to power. Today, five of the eight members of the state’s U.S. congressional delegation are Republicans. The sole Democrat in the government is Doug La Follette, who is secretary of state. The legislature is in Republican hands. And the architect of the victorious 2010 Wisconsin campaign was GOP Chairman Reince Priebus.
So the showdown in Wisconsin may assume national proportions. Priebus now will aim a national campaign against President Obama and the Democrats. And the Democrats chose Priebus’ state as their launching pad to smash Republicans.
The Wisconsin battle is not over. But it could be the beginning of a moment of clarity in which a small but entrenched special interest — government workers — is dislodged by fed-up taxpayers. And it could be a contagion that spreads to other states across the country.
UPDATE: Politico’s Ben Smith and Maggie Haberman report this morning on how the unions’ high-risk Wisconsin strategy may come at a potentially steep cost: “Some strategists and labor officials watching the protest conflagration from the outside are beginning to fret that a large-scale defeat in Wisconsin will have a devastating ripple effect, weakening labor state by state throughout the rest of the country.”