In August 2011, talk-show host Ed Schultz set up shop outside the statehouse in Madison, Wis., where thousands of pro-labor demonstrators, furious over Governor Scott Walker’s reforms ending collective bargaining for public employees, had gathered on the eve of a recall election. The Democrats were attempting to recall six Republican state senators who had voted for Walker’s reforms, and the Republicans were attempting to recall three Democrats who had fled the state to avoid a quorum. (The Democrats succeeded in unseating two Republicans, not enough to take control of the Senate.) The scene was reminiscent of ESPN’s College GameDay, with thousands of people waving signs behind Schultz’s outdoor broadcast, booing at every mention of Walker and cheering applause lines like, “This is the eye of the storm for the fight for the middle class in this country. . . . This is also ground zero for Citizens United. . . . I offer to you tonight, viewers, that this is a microcosm of what is taking place in the fight for the middle class in this country.”
The scene may not have been unfamiliar to Schultz, a onetime sports broadcaster, now the host of a daily radio program and a nightly talk show on MSNBC. Except that, with the start of the Wisconsin protests in early 2011, Schultz went from being head reporter to head cheerleader.
On May 30, 2012, he declared Wisconsin “ground zero in the 30-year war against the middle class by the conservatives. It’s the first true test and measurement against Citizens United.” On May 10 he had called it a race of “historical political proportion for this country,” grandly proclaiming, “It’s a fight that will have an impact across the nation. It’s a fight that matters to the middle class in every corner of this country.”
Of course, Schultz was not alone in declaring the recall a world-historical moment. In 2011 ABC introduced an episode of This Week with a video montage of protesters in Wisconsin and the Middle East, accompanied by the narration, “People power, making history: A revolt in the Midwest, and a revolution sweeping across the Middle East.” Hardball’s Chris Matthews, after broadcasting a clip of Walker telling a supporter he would “divide and conquer” to achieve statewide reform, tittered, “This is like Watergate!” And The Nation’s John Nichols, Schultz’s go-to political analyst and the author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, credited the Wisconsin protests with producing “an immense amount of hope” that “even in an era of money and politics . . . you could go out and assemble, as the Founders intended, and petition for the redress of grievances.”
But over the past few weeks, as polls showed Walker steadily gaining against his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, much of the liberal media quietly sounded a tactical retreat, attempting to downplay the significance of the election. Back in April The New Republic’s Richard L. Hasen wrote: “But while it’s not yet clear whether Walker will survive the vote, it’s increasingly safe to declare one winner and one loser from the recall election. The winner is the national Democratic Party, which is already reaping benefits. The loser is the cause of civility in the state of Wisconsin.” On CNN on May 27, Democratic National Committee chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz called the recall a “dry run” for November, but then, that afternoon, she told C-SPAN’s Newsmakers, “I think, honestly, there aren’t going to be any repercussions. It’s an election based in Wisconsin.” The day before the election, the Associated Press’s Thomas Beaumont published an article titled “Few November Clues to Be Found in Wisconsin Recall,” and on election day itself the New York Times covered the recall on page 11.
The White House, meanwhile, maintained complete silence about the recall until election eve. Although President Obama campaigned in California and in Wisconsin’s next-door neighbor, Minnesota, in the days before the election, he neither visited Wisconsin nor spoke publicly about the recall effort. The extent of his campaigning was a pro-Barrett Twitter message on Monday evening. Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza, appearing on MSNBC, candidly explained the president’s absence: “They [administration officials] don’t think they’re going to win, and they don’t necessarily want to be associated with a loss in a swing state.”
Not Schultz. If a memo made the rounds, he never got it. He charged ahead with his attacks on Walker and his declarations of the recall’s significance, even pleading with President Obama on his nightly broadcast to go to Madison and “rally the troops.”
Yet with nearly the entire left-wing press and political establishment trying to forget Madison, it is hard to imagine that Schultz will not fall in line.
Recall? Where? Wisconsin? Never heard of it.
— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review Online.