The Campaign Spot

On Wisconsin, Obi-Wan Cites Thatcher: ‘Controversy Is Good.’

It’s an off-year, but with the fights in Wisconsin, the high-stakes budget battle, and the 2012 buzz, it feels like an election year already. So I checked in with my mentor and traditional election-season sounding board, the man nicknamed Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Obi: A call from you means the whole thing is starting again. Hard to adjust, you understand, from when I started out. I mean, Kennedy declared in January of 1960 and Goldwater in January of 1964, and Nixon went even later, in February of 1968 — only a month and a bit before the New Hampshire primary.

So here we are, almost a whole year before the year of the election, and full media buzz approaching. Okay, I will temporarily halt my investing business, which isn’t all that gratifying since it appears that once again Warren Buffett has more cash on hand than me, and ask you tentatively: What’s up?

Jim: Well, Wisconsin, for starters. This is looking like a policy victory, but the polls look pretty ominous for Scott Walker and other reform-minded governors.

Obi: Forget the recalls or the polling. Wisconsin has been too sweet. Remember Margaret Thatcher. She would suggest some bold initiative to her cabinet and then watch the empire’s bravest sons squirming in their red-cushioned seats at 10 Downing worrying about what the media might say and how their precious image might be affected. Mrs. T. would say to herself, in looking at those preening males: “And women are supposed to be vain?” The point here — the lady who was not for turning used to say, “Controversy is good.” That’s how we advance our agenda, how the public finds out what is going on, how the good guys win.

The mistake political junkies always make is wildly overestimating how much detail normal folks have about politics and government. (Not a criticism of normal folks.They are sane.We are not.) So with Chris Christie and now Governor Walker, the public is just beginning to gets its head around the pay and benefits and pensions of state employees. And Wisconsin has brought the whole question of giving state employees not only civil-service protections but the kind of collective-bargaining rights that corrupt current politicians into giveaways that force generations of taxpayers into indentured servitude and ultimately hurt public employees by bankrupting their pension funds.

So Walker’s numbers are irrelevant. Get into any controversy and the numbers tremble, but look at former Michigan governor John Engler and Christie and, for that matter, Thatcher and Reagan. People cut through the noise, figure it out and the political dividend is huge. I’m almost sorry Walker had this quick a victory.

Jim: So what are the national implications of the Wisconsin battle?

Obi-Wan: The micro picture at the state level is playing into the macro picture at the national level. Boehner and company are orchestrating a bimonthly drama in which Obama and the Democrats are seen to resist cuts. And since when do congressional Republicans know how to play political theater? The GOP should keep that one going.

Another priority here is [Rep.] Devin Nunes’s bill to force disclosure of public-employee pension funds’ liabilities. Some people say it’s a trillion. Some people says it’s three. Talk about educating the public? Wait till that becomes an issue in the 2012 campaign.

Jim: From where I sit, I look at Obama — on the budget, on the deficit, on the Middle East — and he seems to be flailing. His polls have dipped a bit, but the bottom hasn’t fallen out. What’s going on?

Obi: Well, everybody is learning a lot from Wisconsin except Obama and the Democrats. Can’t they do the electoral math? They lost the big-to-middlin’ Midwestern swing states in 2010 on the fiscal issue. In a presidential race, they can’t really afford to lose more than one.

So, having lost those states because people got educated that electing Democrats mean more spending and taxes and fewer jobs, what do they do the minute the Wisconsin fight breaks out? Jump in to support legislators who won’t come to vote and public employees who won’t come to work. And the president who sued Arizona can’t wait to interfere with a Wisconsin governor’s budget by supporting legislators who won’t vote and state employees who resist contributing to their own health benefits.

All this comes across over time as an obsession with special-interest politics, and that is un-presidential and that hurts in the polls eventually. Obama just lacks self-awareness.

Jim: From what you’re saying, you seem very optimistic about 2012.

Obi: Optimistic isn’t the word. The Democrats have no idea that they were unraveling at the start of the last decade. Nor do they know what saved them: The old broadcast networks went fully anti-Republican, the Bush administration refused to have a communications strategy and defend itself and replaced a political strategy based on conservative ideas with consultant maneuvers. Then came the economic crisis.

The public is seeing what the Dems are about on fiscal, national security, and social issues. And the leader of their party is unrelentingly far-left. Obama has become a GOP attack ad.

Jim: Okay, so who do you like on the GOP side heading towards 2012?

Obi: Hey, let it shake out. The debates should be enjoyable. Sure, the GOP could hand it to them again, but that is going to take some really, really hard work.

Jim: What else is on your mind lately?

Obi: Two fun things to speculate about.

Obama, after that make-believe comeback of a month ago, is sagging again in the polls. Remember, the next downward trend could become a plunge. Happens to unpopular (and un-presidential) presidents, they hold on for a while and then go south. All those pundits ruling out a primary opponent are premature. And with the adoption of the Bush Guantanamo strategy on detainees, Obama might get a far-leftie in the primary. And, speaking of 1968 and New Hampshire, Gene McCarthy can lead to Bobby Kennedy. So has anyone noticed who Tina Brown put on her first Newsweek cover? Hillary. Shy Hillary. Shy, compulsively mendacious Hillary.

Second, the broadcast networks want in on the presidential race but suddenly realize it’s all GOP and they haven’t been exactly nice over the past decade. I mean here is NBC — which has Philip Griffin proudly running MSNBC as the single biggest attack vehicle against conservative and the Republicans — wondering why GOP candidates don’t want to come rushing to their debate party.

So when the debates start these network executives are going to ask themselves: We want to cover this — an hour and a half of conservative delight?

We have forgotten what it’s like to hear conservative voices on a steady basis — and with a failing incumbent Democratic president in office. The debates will be major equation-changers. So broadcast network executives will be appalled and start to pull back. But Fox will keep covering the horse race. So what will the old networks do? Fun is the right word.


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