In my decade of running campaigns in Wisconsin, I always had little sayings to keep my candidate’s message on track. My favorite, and perhaps most oft-cited, is the admonition that “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
Yesterday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced the third television ad in his attempt to stave off a recall election. Government union loyalists are gathering signatures in an attempt to recall Walker, who earlier this year all but eliminated collective bargaining for public unions and required greater health and pension contributions from public employees. Within 12 days, unions boasted of collecting 300,000 of the 540,000 signatures they will need to force an election to cast Walker from office.
Each one of Walker’s three television ads to date feature someone in the education field (teacher, school board member) explaining that they are standing behind Walker for making the tough choices to balance the state’s $3.6 billion budget deficit. Two of the ads end with Walker himself calmly reassuring voters that Wisconsin’s best days are ahead. (The teacher in the second ad recently revealed she has been receiving threats for appearing in a pro-Walker advertisement.)
The ads are well produced. They make excellent, well-reasoned points and adequately defend Walker’s position. They are also a complete and total waste of money.
As an old campaign guru once said, “nobody ever successfully defended anything; there is only attack, attack, and more attack.” Walker is fighting the battle for his political life with a shield and not a sword; every dollar he wastes trying to explain his policy to the voters of Wisconsin, who have been saturated with stories about his policy for almost a year now, is a dollar he can’t spend aggressively moving votes in his direction.
Walker can no longer run against a concept, such as public sector collective bargaining. He needs to run against a bad guy — and the nomination for Wisconsin’s most obnoxious union loyalist currently stands as a 1,000-person tie.
Hours of footage exists of protesters screaming and being dragged feet-first from committee hearings. One young woman chained her head to a railing in the Assembly chambers while floor session was going on. Walker has received death threats and his children have been targeted on Facebook. Rabid union demonstrators have been arrested for pouring beer on lawmakers. Organized labor loyalists have disrupted Special Olympics award ceremonies and booed Walker at the state’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Union misanthropes are free to scream expletives at 14-year old girls.
Wisconsin has become a place where public vulgarity is not only tolerated, but expected (here’s a compendium of people online inviting Walker to engage in intercourse with himself. Language warning, of course).
The message is simple: If Walker is recalled, these people win. Their grotesque tactics will be vindicated, further ripping the state apart. Wisconsin will cease being the state its residents love; it will instead be a place where threats and intimidation reign.
Wisconsinites get this. When the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (my outfit) asked the state’s residents what they thought of the Occupy movement (which some would argue emanated from the Wisconsin collective bargaining protests), only 34% had a favorable impression. Until Walker has a legitimate opponent, he should be spending his money educating Wisconsinites what the protesters have been doing and reminding voters why they don’t like them.
Walker is moving in the right direction. In a recent interview with Politico, he said he wasn’t afraid of “the national big government union bosses.” (The article is puzzlingly titled “Walker vows to crush ‘union bosses,’” even though he didn’t say anything remotely that inflammatory.) It shows he is willing to find a tangible target with which to contrast his common-sense policies.
Furthermore, it’s not as if the unions are going to sit back and calmly explain their position. The liberal group One Wisconsin Now is actually encouraging people to sign more than one recall petition, even though only one of any individual’s signatures can legally count. The state Government Accountability Board will give the presumption of validity to all signatures, and there is no penalty for signing multiple times.
Thus, if someone signs a petition 30 times, 29 will be invalid — but only if Scott Walker’s campaign can manually enter all 540,000 signatures into a database and weed out the duplicates in the 10 days in which they have to challenge. Fabricated names and addresses will all be considered legal unless Walker’s volunteers can pick through hundreds of thousands of signatures and weed them out in the allotted time period. (In Ohio recently, 351,000 — or over 25% — of union-submitted signatures were found to be invalid.)
In 1949, a commanding firefighter named Wag Dodge found his crew of smokejumpers running up a steep hill in the Helena National Forest in Montana, trying to escape a fire that was chasing them from behind. The severe grade of the hill and tall grass in front of them made outrunning the fire impossible. So Dodge pulled out a match and set fire to the grass on the hill in front of his men, clearing the way for them to escape. While Dodge was one of only three of 18 that survived, his tactic became known as an “escape fire,” and became a standard firefighting practice.
Scott Walker has a fire that could soon consume him. If he continues to appeal to reason while the unions appeal to emotion, he could soon hand the unions the nationwide win they have craved since he took office. It is now time for him to pull out his blowtorch and clear his path to victory. Until then, it is only his campaign money that he is lighting on fire.