The Corner

How Paul Ryan Unexpectedly Won the Wisconsin Recalls

There’s a Muppet Show bit where curmudgeonly balcony-dweller Waldorf remarks that an act “wasn’t half bad.” After a brief pause, his partner Statler chimes in: “Nope. It was all bad.”

In Wisconsin, Democrats have been damaging their retinas squinting to find the silver lining in the past two weeks’ recall elections. Even after Wisconsin Democratic party chair Mike Tate boldly declared that they had a chance to sweep all six Republican seats last week, Tate maintains that falling short of the three seats needed to retake the senate majority was “historic.” But for Democrats, it wasn’t half bad — it was all bad.

So bad, in fact, that it actually created Republican winners that couldn’t even have been envisioned before the elections began. Take congressional fiscal dreamboat Paul Ryan, whose plan to reform America’s entitlement programs became a fixture in the Wisconsin recall effort.

In April of 2010, Ryan told me he fully expected his budget plan to be used as a “demagogic weapon” against Republicans. And in the 2011 Wisconsin recall elections, Democrats attempted to do just that — despite the fact that these races were state and not federal contests. They tried to hang Ryan’s plan around the neck of state senators Sheila Harsdorf and Alberta Darling, apparently unaware that Harsdorf and Darling have as much to do with Medicare and Social Security as they do in getting the Milwaukee Brewers to re-sign Prince Fielder.

This didn’t deter Tate. In a June interview with Politico, he outlined his plan to confuse Wisconsin voters by tying their state senators to the Ryan plan. “We’ve got them on camera with Paul Ryan. We’ve got them on the record saying they support the Ryan agenda. And I think it’s something that voters are going to weigh in on,” Tate said. “I think the list of Republicans who are going to lose their seat because of Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan is not just going to be starting at the federal level.”

Darling’s opponent, Assemblywoman Sandy Pasch, posted a page on her campaign website declaring “Alberta Darling Works with Paul Ryan to Cut Medicare.” (Pasch’s evidence was drawn from a piece by Nation columnist John Nichols, whose ramblings are so out of touch, one wonders if there is proper ventilation in his office.)

Teachers’-union activist Shelley Moore, Harsdorf’s opponent, said the incumbent Republican wanted to “eliminate Medicare” by “standing with Ryan” — a claim for which she received a “pants on fire” rating from Politifact.

Yet none of these attacks seemed to do any good. Harsdorf trounced Moore, 58–42, actually increasing her margin of victory from the 56 percent she received against Democrat Allison Page in 2008. That same year Darling won by a single percentage point, yet in her recall election, which Tate called the “crown jewel” of the Democrats’ effort, Darling whipped Pasch by eight points.

Granted, campaigns are complicated affairs with myriad issues, and voters may have recognized that “Medicare” (a federal program) is different than “Medicaid” (a partially federal program administered and partially funded by the states.) But it is a sign that voters in swing areas looked at Ryan’s plan and shrugged. Perhaps they figured that attempting to solve America’s oncoming entitlement tsunami is a laudable thing.

Ryan is certainly not hurting for praise in these pages or in other conservative circles. I, for one, am trying to determine which of my children to love less in order to make more room in my heart to love Paul Ryan more. But as he (apparently) mulls a run for the presidency, he should take solace in the Wisconsin recall results — they demonstrate that the public seems to get what he’s trying to accomplish.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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