You Can Always Teach a Party New Tricks: How the Dems Both Won and Lost Wisconsin

On Tuesday night, MSNBC sent Ed Schultz to cover the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election on the ground. Maybe the fact that he was on the radio in the Dakotas was "close enough." Maybe he volunteered. Maybe if you squint he sort of looks like a sausage in a JoS. A. Bank casing.

Schultz took to it, leading a crowded room of Democratic volunteers, amping up pro-union populism with a We Can Do It! fist-pumping attitude. It was fun. Then Democratic nominee Tom Barrett lost. After a few moments of silence, the attitude returned: "We won!" You know, apart from the math.

Then, since the returns had come in, and the pro-union vote hadn't delivered a victory, the union crowd that got Ed all fired up effectively disappeared.

The interval between disappointment and sudden, alternative victory was really that brief, a matter of shifting focus from an immediate and discouraging reality to a number of ancillary arguments intended to wave it away.

That the multitude of arguments were at the ready, seconded by studio personnel and echoed immediately on leftist and DNC-favoring blogs is not a coincidence. Without them, there would have been only the humiliating reality that the Democratic political apparatus and commentariat had just gotten their shit stomped by a puffy, soporific manboy Koch-puppet ("Charlie McCarthyism") currently in a three-way race with Jan Brewer and Rick Scott for most despised governor in America.

That the spin neglected to mention perhaps the most important issue should not surprise you. Spin is supposed to be airy filler; it's the popcorn of ideas:

  • Obama Won Anyway - Exit polls showed Obama beating Romney 51-44 percent. It's a bummer that Wisconsin Democrats will have a Republican governor, but if the numbers hold, come November they will still have a Republican governor. And instead of safety-net-cutting Mean Mitt Romney, they'll have a president who preemptively offers to cut the safety net in search of concessions from opponents with no interest in compromise. We will not be defeated; we are surrendering very slowly!
  • Obama Also Didn't Lose - No, really, this is a thing. Had he campaigned for Tom Barrett, he would have alienated Walker voters who told exit pollsters they were pro-Obama. Somehow, a president applauded for highlighting common aspirations couldn't have acknowledged Walker voters' worries while suggesting Barrett as a better problem-solver. Instead, he would have said, "Y'all are some fucktarded cheese-eaters," then dropped the mic. Besides, if he'd campaigned for Barrett, it would have looked like Obama lost. Thank God that didn't happen and that RNC Chairman Rience Preibus didn't make that exact point in his first interview after Walker was projected as the winner. Then it wouldn't have been echoed by FOX News, Sarah Palin and your co-worker who checks all the new commemorative quarters for signs of Sharia. Flawless. This "as goes Wisconsin, so goes other states for some reason" argument is like a bad sports column: "Wisconsin! Momentum! Intangibles!"
  • Republicans Had Too Much Money - Walker's war chest dwarfed Barrett's by a ratio of over 7:1. While the most significant culprit was probably a Wisconsin election law that allowed Walker to stuff his wallet during the petition process and limited his challenger to only a matter of weeks, MSNBC ran instantly to Citizens United. The same ruling that allowed Sheldon Adelson to underwrite the Gingrich campaign also allowed him (and others) to send fat checks to Walker groups. It's a great explanation if you want to stop there, because it replaces being disheartened about one thing with being angry about something else that can appear to bear full responsibility.

It really is easier to stop the discussion there, because any further examination brings up the populist, working- and middle-class outrage that kicked off this sad, doomed trip, poured forth onto the streets of Madison and provided the spiritual impetus for Occupy Wall Street. The problem is, it came from unions, which have become the Voldemort of American politics—less effective than the hype, but never to be spoken of aloud.

At this point, your total yearly exposure to ardently pro-union sentiment in popular media might be limited to articles posted on, say, a gossip website. The only marquee national politician talking them up is Bill Clinton, who of course is not running for office, cannot write, vote for or sign law and kicked unions to the curb in the first place.

What Clinton recognized in 1992 is that Democrats' being seen as the puppets of labor unions only frightened independent business voters—while the unions had no choice. Like gays and minorities, where were they gonna go? Unless you're a firefighter or cop—both of whom are supported by the GOP's law-and-order rhetoric and post-9/11 sanctification—you don't have a choice as a union member. You can vote for the Democrat, or you can go fuck yourself.

That message came through pretty clearly in Wisconsin, when party wise men threw support behind Barrett, who'd already lost to Walker, instead of a stronger union candidate and in spite of the popular origins of the recall push. In his debate with Walker, Barrett downplayed his support for unions, saying that the real test of leadership is being able to say no to your friends. The analogy doesn't work: friends are bound to each other by affection and trust; captive audiences have only suicide as an option. Passing this test is not hard.

Amid the spin on Tuesday night, union abandonment curiously didn't come up. MSNBC's own exit poll showed that over 60 percent of voters believed that recalls were only appropriate in cases of official misconduct. Of course, if national figures are too busy distancing themselves from unions to ever say something positive and instructive about them, it becomes natural for people to think their crippling to be wholly appropriate business.

Obama himself has fed into this cycle, speaking to unions, then ignoring them, endorsing the EFCA, allowing it to devolve into ass-covering intra-party confusion, ditching Card Check and letting it die. Meanwhile, there are no prominent voices in the party repeatedly, persuasively and memorably challenging the multitude of stupid arguments against unions. Hardly anyone even clears a throat at the noun most often invoked when describing them: thug, a word once more socially neutral, but now usually associated with a violent "other."

MSNBC's instant Tuesday night spin omitted the idea that maybe a generation spent moving warmly toward Wall Street while leaving labor out in the cold convinced voters that such contempt was warranted. The Democrats acknowledge unions' existence on Labor Day and during the national convention, which qualifies them for the same level of on-camera embrace that the GOP's 15 blacks and homosexuals get during the presidential nominee's acceptance speech every four years. Just think of how integral all of them are to crafting party policy.

Maybe allowing the Republican Party to dominate the labor narrative and set the terms of the debate with buzzword attacks and cheap imagery, without mounting a zealous defense, convinced voters that Scott Walker wasn't attacking anything that deserved defending. Wisconsin has a proud union history and a proud Democratic history, but you can teach a party to forget anything. If you had a time machine, a trust-busting Republican progressive and universal healthcare advocate like Teddy Roosevelt could show you.

Or maybe it was just the money. The Democrats used to get a lot of money from union workers. Then again, there used to be a lot more of them.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?

Image by Jim Cooke. Photo by Getty.