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Perlstein writes: "The answer is not for Democrats to cheat. But it begins with the Democratic establishment doing business in a way that doesn't make their most devoted partisans feel like slapping them upside the head."

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. (photo: Politico)
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. (photo: Politico)

How Republicans Cheat Democrats - and Democrats Cheat Themselves

By Rick Perlstein, Rolling Stone

15 June 12

he volume of explanation for why Republican Scott Walker won and Democrat Tom Barrett lost last week's Wisconsin recall election has been overwhelming, which is as it should be: This was a very, very important election.

Some have pointed out that it is only natural that Walker won when his side outspent the opposition by a ratio of eight, or ten, or twelve times to one (there is no definitive figure, which is precisely the problem: our new campaign finance universe deliberately makes it hard to keep track of all the money). A blunt reader of Talking Points memo points out that this was a recall election aimed at preserving public employee unions, but public employee unions simply are not popular. Yet that explanation runs up against the fact that last year in Ohio, a state equally as purplish as Wisconsin, voters crushed their reactionary governor's attempt to pass the same sort of anti-union law there, by a vote of 61 percent to 39. In Ohio, where the law allows for statutory repeal, pro-union forces were able to strike while the iron was hot, just months after the offending act's passage; in Wisconsin, where there is no statutory repeal, the law dictated that voters had to wait almost a year after the passage of the law to vote to recall their governor - meaning the problem was short attention spans and simple legal mechanics.

All good, sound, analysis - but my best explanation goes deeper, and says much more not just about Wisconsin, but about the entire structure of our political firmament: how Democrats do business, how Republicans do business, and how the world works as a result. My story is symbolized by the Election Day Slap:

Now, understand, I don't know all the details here - for all I know the slapper is some schizophrenic maniac, smacking powerful people up and down the Dairy State. But the symbolism still stands. Apparently what happened was that Democratic candidate Tom Barrett gave a concession speech even though there were still votes to be counted. His supporters in the room were livid, according to reports: they had devoted their blood, sweat, and tears to what they saw as a fight for all they held dear, and believed the man to whom they had pledged themselves was quitting before the fight was even over. One of them approached him and said she'd like to slap him. Mayor Barrett said he'd rather be hugged. He leaned down for said hug. And got slapped instead.

And therein hangs a tale: about grassroots Democrats who act like activists, who hold that slaps are sometimes what it takes to get the political job done, and Democratic leaders who act like you can solve all political problems with a hug. Which, pretty much, was Tom Barrett's entire election platform. As I explained here in May, the leading candidate in the primary to face Walker in the recall ran with a take-no-prisoners strategy to restore union rights: she pledged to veto any budget that didn't restore collective bargaining. That meant that if she won the statehouse, Republican legislators in Madison could hold on to their anti-union law only on pain of shutting down the state.

Then, out of nowhere, little more than two months before Election day, a new candidate announced: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Two days earlier, he'd had a $400-a-plate fundraising luncheon, closed to the media, hosted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Here was a signal: Barrett was the Democratic Party Establishment's man. And the Democratic Establishment, in this age of Barack Obama, does things in a very certain way: it never takes any prisoners, never takes the most gutsy path (this is even true for the vaunted "tough guy" Rahm Emanuel, whose standing orders as White House chief of staff was never to take on any fights unless victory was assured in advance).

Barrett immediately announced a different plan to reverse the anti-union law if he became governor: He would call a special legislative session, in which he would introduce a standalone repeal bill. He would make it hard for his side on purpose. He would make the lions lay down with the lambs, Obama style. He would sell himself to the electorate as the peacemaker. He would follow the Bill Clinton strategy, triangulate against his own side. If swing voters hate union cronyism, he would prove he wasn't a union crony. "I'm not the union guy," he would say on the campaign trail - he was the guy the unions didn't want; they even tried to talk him out of running.

There are many problems with this strategy. The first has to do with the way the media works. Programmed robotically to see any political issue in polarized terms, journalists will register "leftist" pugnacity no matter how conciliatory a Democrat behaves in actual fact - as with Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama now. The second problem is that it requires Democrats to simultaneously surrender the actual benefits of being bold, tough partisans. The Republicans enjoy the grassroots energy of a fierce field army on the ground convinced they are fighting for nothing less than the survival of civilization (meanwhile they harvest moderates in a far more efficient way - using their money advantage to saturate the electorate with slick TV ads). Democrats appeal to moderates as their activist strategy - although, in an old saw Democrats have long ago forgotten, moderates are the people who don't knock on doors on election day. Liberal activists who show up do so reluctantly - having already seen their candidate sell them out.

The Wisconsin story was told in a tale of two rallies. I wrote about one of them last week—the dazzling, transcendent spectacle of Madison union activists rocking like it was 1964 and Martin Luther King was preaching to them about having a dream. Another I didn't bother to write about—because it was simply too boring, even though it featured a former president of the United States.

In jeans, his chalk-white hair flopping in the breeze, William Jefferson Clinton hit every one of the Barrett campaign's talking points. Scott Walker, he said, had launched Wisconsin into a civil war - and a vote for Barrett was a vote to end the civil war. "Constant conflict," he said, was "a dead-bang loser." The reason people admire Wisconsin, he said, was for its tradition of holding "vigorous political debates, closely held elections" after which "people got together and figured out what to do!" All over the world, successful communities were the ones featuring "creative cooperation .... The 'divide and conquer' strategy is nuts." He talked about the Tea Party Republican who unseated Richard Lugar, condemning the incumbent Republican Indiana Senator "for working together with a President from another party on national security," promising, "I will never compromise." He told stories of Democrats working with Republicans; of business working with unions - and who can argue with that?

Well, for one thing, one model of cooperation he pointed to, Rahm Emanuel's new "infrastructure bank" for Chicago, is actually a hustle for back-room corporate giveaways. For another, this is not how Bill Clinton won his presidential elections. In 1992, he won by promising to "put people first." And in 1996 he won by fighting Republican attempts to cut Medicare—promising he would never compromise on that, never sit down at the table with Republicans seeking to roll back basic middle class entitlements.

Finally, in his speech Clinton pulled back from the entire affair, saying he didn't even really like recall elections in the first place.

The intensity in the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand affair in Milwaukee was about a quarter of the size of the rally in Madison. Tom Barrett, for his part, made plain which rally he personally preferred: the boring one. In Milwaukee, in a Brewer windbreaker, he introduced Clinton. In Madison, he showed up while things were winding down, never took the stage, and spent a few minutes walking through the crowd. After all, his main campaign argument was that he wasn't the activist guy.

And then he lost. For many reasons, I'm sure. But most of all, I'd argue, for campaigning like a Democrat. Just like Scott Walker won for many reasons - but not least because he campaigned as a Republican.

The pattern, every time it repeats, leaves Democrats in agony. How is it possible, Democratic partisans ask, that 36 percent of voters in union households went for the union-busting Walker?

It is kind of like the question we asked in 2000: How is it possible that Bill Clinton's vice president lost when Clinton had just delivered the nation eight years of peace and prosperity?

And in 2004: How is it possible that George Bush won reelection after lying us into a massively unpopular war in Iraq?

And in 2010: How is it possible that all those Democrats lost in Democratic districts against all those Tea Party weirdos?

Well, at a certain point in these "How is it possible?" discussions, you have to get down to the nut cutting: Republicans win because Republcians cheat. They cheat in each and every election, systematically and predictably. They crap out last-minute turnout-killing lies: in this last, for instance, that people who signed recall petitions automatically had their vote recorded against Walker and so didn't have to go to the polls; and in 2006, in at least fifty different congressional races, an overwhelming volume of calls that appeared to be from the Democratic candidate, dozens in a row, designed to so anger potential Democratic voters that they'd stay home from the polls.

They render Democratic phone lines useless: In 2006, pundette Laura Ingraham did it by telling her radio listeners to deluge a voter protection hotline with calls; this last week by blasting out text messages inviting the same for Tom Barrett's campaign headquarters. They intimidate voters on Election Day in minority precincts, wearing scary uniforms and warning those with outstanding warrants to stay away if they don't want to be arrested. They push out horror-show media - like the Scott Walker TV commercial with the baby who was beaten to death, a crime somehow laid at Tom Barrett's feet; or the mailers the Republican National Committee sent out in 2004 to Arkansans and West Virignias that the Bible would be "banned" if "you don't vote." More prosaically, they retail statistical lies: in 2000, that Bush's proposed tax cuts would not predominantly benefit the rich; last Tuesday, that the federal government said Wisconsin added 30,000 jobs.

This kind of stuff doesn't really get reported, or noticed: it happens too late to get into the news before the polls open (that's the point of the tactics), and then, once the polls close, all the media oxygen is taken up with horse-race stuff (the bad guys know that too). Bringing this stuff up also violates a sort of unspoken faux-macho journalist code:  "That's politics," they say; "both sides do it" (they don't); and if the victimized campaign brings it up, they're just whining. The bad guys work with this bias very effectively, for instance  keeping a handy mental file of isolated, occasional Democratic abuses - the one incident you hear about over and over was the tire-slashing of Republican get-out-the-vote vehicles in Milwaukee eight years ago, for which four Democratic campaign workers including the son of a congresswoman went to jail - to feed journalists' both-sides-do-it brain-deadedness.

Someday, some clever political scientist might figure out a way to quantify just how many points on election day Democrats have to make up to bring things to square. Until that point - or probably even after that point - we can expect the usual Wednesday morning diet of earnest reflections on what the polling just past "says" about the electorate. Republicans will keep pushing, pushing, pushing their vision for what kind of world they want to live in - union and public-employee free. Democrats, free of any particular vision for society at all, will go into "battle" retailing themselves as the nicer fellows in the contest, and earnestly hope the electorate goes along.

The answer is not for Democrats to cheat. But it begins with the Democratic establishment doing business in a way that doesn't make their most devoted partisans feel like slapping them upside the head.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for your social media marketing partner


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+17 # dyannne 2012-06-15 22:22
Should be required reading for every Democrat running for election.
+3 # paulrevere 2012-06-15 23:08
Good description.

I'd add that it is articles like this which perpetuate the miasma of the left.

Keep the discussion buried in nebulous discussion about how big the short fall is, both in response by the left and in integrity by the moneyed.

Department of Redundancy Department with no recognition of how deeply the Rahm/DLC stench has soaked into the very marrow of the dems political processes.

Once WETHEPEOPLE identify that decay, we get no novacain and we DRILL BABY DRILL, till that rot is gone.

Time for the forces of 'the commons', that which we all pay for and benefit by, take over and heal from the inside out...this dis-ease has progressed tooooo far.
+6 # grouchy 2012-06-16 00:52
Ok, so where we go after this next election where we can slap some of these idiots upside of their heads?
+8 # Rick Levy 2012-06-16 01:34
Very simply, Republicans are street fighters. Democrats are wimps.
0 # Michael Lee Bugg 2012-06-21 09:47
Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Congressional Democrats brought their pillows to a knife fight in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010. Obama won in 2008 because the short attention span voters could still remember that Bush made this mess and Obama promissed to change it. This time many of those angry at Bush have had time to forget and those who haven't forgotten also remember that Obama continued many of Bush's policies including the costly wars/occupation s and caved/compromis ed on everything else. Romney only has to keep blaming Obama to have a good chance to win.
+17 # Bruce Gruber 2012-06-16 05:21
Rick Perlstein has caught the flavor, the aftertaste, the debilitating fog that permeates progressive, humanitarian, democratic, participatory universe. Progresssives universally try to set an example by playing 'fair and just' in a contest where the 'other' side holds pep rallies to revel in a snickering, 'win-at-all-cos t, take no prisoners,, admit nothing, annihilate-your -opponent, break their legs in the tackle' high school football game.

Long range goals of civilized, humane, enhanced progress have given way to immediate destruction and the reversal of decades long efforts to implement "...liberty and justice for all". "Winner take ALL!" has become the rallying cry for those who would return us to the age of the robber barons.

Why we are doing this to ourselves seems to couple resentment over diminishing resources and opportunities with sophisticated techniques for 'buying' control of government. It is clear the long range effects of this process do not bode well for participatory democracy or peaceful progress.
+2 # paulrevere 2012-06-16 09:45
"cain't fight 'em, join 'em" is the mantram taken on by the Rahm's, BC/HC's, Dodd's, Gephardt's, Hoyer's, DLC, DNC, DCCC et al.

What more need be stated?
+20 # kyzipster 2012-06-16 07:15
So sad and so true. Democrats have the majority of public opinion on their side on almost every important issue and Republicans continue to gain power.

When you look at individual issues; SS & Medicare, taxation, affordable health care, the environment, etc., this country is solidly liberal as defined by Fox News and the Republicans. When polled, most voters identify as conservative because they like their guns and hate abortion. Even when it comes to the culture war the Democrats represent the majority, the majority of gun owners support sensible gun legislation to help law enforcement and a slight majority supports keeping abortion legal but Republicans have successfully defined Democrats as baby killers who want to ban all guns.

Democrats have been operating in a fearful, defensive posture since Reagan's Presidency. How much further down will the Republicans take us before Democrats fight back?
+15 # LegendBert 2012-06-16 07:25
The Democrats need a vision that prosperity is the product of a government that is good for the people and good for business. Then they need to realize that this is war. They don't need to cheat but they do need tactics that defeat the cheating. Lock and Load.
+8 # paulrevere 2012-06-16 09:52
I'd also suggest that the 'official' dems begin as of yesterday to point out that an extreme has been met and that extreme is a 30 plus year flail into dispelling and wrecking the business gospel lessons from the Great Depression.

State the 3 principles, what ever 3 becomes the most succinct principles illustrating centuries long lessons in containing social greed and drill that till folks are 'learned' about it.

Maybe have 3 sets of 3 and cycle them over and the cretins are doing with moral issues, immigration and deficits.

+4 # dick 2012-06-16 07:41
The Recall effort did magnificently well, under the circumstances.
The Demn Establishment actually sabotaged the pro union campaign to protect their center-right image in Nov. Victory in such a narrowly focused campaign was a very long shot. When Obama decided to protect Wall St. & serve up public employee unions as the scapegoat for budget problems, he BETRAYED his base, Party, supporters, country. His pathetic Stimulus BETRAYED Keynes & future generations. It's painful to face the truth.
-8 # John Locke 2012-06-16 08:06
One more important item about the 2010 election, and there may have been election tampering as this article implies, I consider the phone calls etc election tampering.

But the cause of the real loss was a backlash against Obama and the Democrats, which is still going on.

Obama failed to address real issues in his first term, those issues centered around Jobs and the foreclosure epedemic. Although Obama and congress could have done something in his first year, he failed to act in these important areas and instead devoted his "energy" to health care and a pay back to the Insurance companies and then he gave up on the one option the people wanted.

November may be a replay of 2010 as more and more comes out about Obama and his corrupt administration, this latest about the 800,000 illegal aliens being turned loose to take American Jobs is not sitting well with the masses.

The only real unbiased poll is Rasmussen and Obama is losing ground daily. This is not being caused by election tampering, but rather from the realities that Obama has done too much against us and more for his financial backers.
+5 # paulrevere 2012-06-16 09:59
You cannot ignore the fact that what really aroused the left also is the overt in your face lying and looting and wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands in the Middle East.

Eleven BILLION on pallets just vaporized?

Several TRILLION on WETHEPEOPLE's credit card via those lies?

...and the HUEUEUEUEUGE groan that went up when Pelosi and the o-head stated publically and emphatically that it was an imperative to look 'forward'?!!

Imho, the HC debate besides being a 30 billion dollar giveaway grease up for the HC industry was a ruse and diversion working against the TRUE shredding of our Constitution...

+5 # Billy Bob 2012-06-16 12:41
That backlash is self-perpetuati ng. He's too conservative because he doesn't have enough left-wing support. He doesn't have enough left-wing support because he's too conservative. At this point, the only people who seem solidly in his camp are moderates. Is it any wonder he doesn't listen to us?

How well did the whole, "let's not vote for 'em and teach 'em a lesson" strategy work for the left in 1968? How about 1980? How about 2000? How about 2010?

+6 # Billy Bob 2012-06-16 12:42

We're our own worst enemies.

Repugs fight like pit bulls in the primary (where the in-fighting actually makes a difference).

Then, when the general election happens, guess what? They ALL rally around their man, whoever it is.

We do the opposite. No one bothers to challenge him in the primary, then we cry about our lack of choices, then we stay at home, then we lose, then we cry about losing.


As a voting block, we're like the annoying panicky woman who freaks out so much in the teen-horror movie, that 1/2 way through the audience is actually cheering for the monster to make her the next victim.

It's pathetic. I wish I was a conservative so I could laugh my ass off about this. Unfortunately, I'm caught in the position of actually caring about the future.
+2 # John Locke 2012-06-16 17:07
"As a voting block, we're like the annoying panicky woman who freaks out so much in the teen-horror movie, that 1/2 way through the audience is actually cheering for the monster to make her the next victim." I can relate to this, Thanks for the laugh!
0 # Billy Bob 2012-06-16 19:12
Thanks. I'll take that as a compliment. It's not too late to laugh.
+2 # Billy Bob 2012-06-16 12:43
By the way, you've never actually been called by Rasmussen. I have. Believe me, they have a right-wing bias.
-8 # RLF 2012-06-16 08:18
Gore threw in the towel early also. It would really help if the Dems acted like progressives and not Republican Lights. Obama with his trickle down economics and breaking almost every promise he made...then telling us we'd be worse off with Romney doesn't get me to the polls...just makes me want to vote third party but there isn't one to speak of so I'll just stay home and Boycott the many in Egypt!
+7 # Lolanne 2012-06-16 10:47
Quoting RLF:
Gore threw in the towel early also. It would really help if the Dems acted like progressives and not Republican Lights. Obama with his trickle down economics and breaking almost every promise he made...then telling us we'd be worse off with Romney doesn't get me to the polls...just makes me want to vote third party but there isn't one to speak of so I'll just stay home and Boycott the many in Egypt!

You do that, RLF...just be a good little minion and help empower the Repukes. After all, they'll REALLY get busy doing things once they take over...only problem is, we damn well won't like the things they're doing.
+4 # ericlipps 2012-06-16 11:32
Quoting RLF:
Gore threw in the towel early also. It would really help if the Dems acted like progressives and not Republican Lights. Obama with his trickle down economics and breaking almost every promise he made...then telling us we'd be worse off with Romney doesn't get me to the polls...just makes me want to vote third party but there isn't one to speak of so I'll just stay home and Boycott the many in Egypt!

I presume you're referring to his election-night concession call--which he repudiated when it became clear that the issue wasn't settled after all.

It's worth remembering that thereafter Gore went on to fight it out all the way to the Supreme Court, which made George W. "Five of Nine" Bush president by decree.
+4 # Billy Bob 2012-06-16 12:51
Well said. RLF would have had Gore go to a higher court than the Supreme Court.

The fact that repug nominated judges appointed bush jr. to the White House is another proof of how important elections actually are.

This is called TRENCH WARFARE. If France had only gone into a fetal position during WWI that war could have been over much much sooner. Instead, they were busy fighting for literally inches of land, as if it mattered.

The differences between Obama and candidate RoMoney don't seem huge. The differences between Obama and candidate bush jr. wouldn't have either.

It's still an exaggeration to claim Obama is just as bad as bush jr. was.
+14 # universlman 2012-06-16 09:26
As we head into the heart of the election, “our system” has shielded the Wall Street cheaters, evicted the Zucotti Park protesters, is legislating against women and stripping voting rights from the poor. The protection of individuals and minorities used to be the splendor of our system, but lately it is just a shame.

When the GOP is rewarded with buckets of corporate cash for blatantly molesting minorities, a reasonable person could fairly wonder if and when the cavalry will ever get here. Our leaders on the left must find a way to speak out against these crimes. Our American character is being vandalized by an increasingly powerful minority and their admiring supporters. If we can not fix this, we will simply witness our broken “system” grind itself into the dirt like an old sedan.
+6 # RaW 2012-06-16 09:59
I wish I could get all Dem candidates to understand this: (I'm speaking metaphorically of course, not advocating violence.) You're in a sword fight. You don't win by reaching out a hand to your opponent; it will be cut off. You win by pushing the sharp end into their soft spots until they stop moving.
+5 # Tigre1 2012-06-16 14:33
Our so-called Democratic Party was formed by street fighters...lite rally. New York to San Francisco, guys broke windows and arms, and took almost as good as they gave out...our current so-called leaders are like University-educ ated docents in a museum pointing out great paintings by artists who couldn't have gotten in the door..."And over here, is Social Security, isn't it beautiful?"

We have white mice with reddened eyes at the top of our party, and there are CATS
out there...

I will ALWAYS vote democrat, but I have NO respect for the fat-butted well-coiffed fools holding elected offices in DC.

I predict this will get worse until some REAL Americans roll out the home-made guillotines and do business on Wall Street and 'K' Street. The chicken&^%$
will find their will soon after...
-1 # jimsenter 2012-06-17 10:47
THis is interesting. I bet every state in the nation could tell of a similar recent election. Here in NC it was the primary race for US Senate in 2006. [I think it was 2006] No one wanted to run. An insurgent candidate- Jim Neal, handsome, well-spokem, man of finance, on the Board of the New School, and gay-- stepped into the race and ran an explicitly populist and progressive race. . He got no support from the state Democratic Party. And party officials went trolling for an "electable" candidate and found Kay Hagan. She won the primary and went on to win the election. Hagan, ablack hole of a senator if there ever was one.

I'm begining to think that the only reasonable response to this party duopoly that actually functions as a single party for the 1% state, is to boycott national and state elections. It is scary but only at the point that the Democratic Party totally falls apart, has no elected officials to give it a reason to exist, might we begin to build an electoral party that actually meets our needs.
0 # mozartssister 2012-06-18 14:09
Honestly, we need a new party. Abandon the Republican-ligh t Democratic establishment to the Republicans and let the rest of us vote for TRULY progressive candidates. If we're going to go down--and it seems we are--at least we don't have to constantly sell out ourselves and our consciences in the process.

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