A Democrat you could vote for

On Wednesday I wrote about the Feckless Four – or really, the Terrible Two – Democratic candidates in the gubernatorial recall election.

Suffice to say neither former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk nor Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett are generating much enthusiasm even among Democratic voters. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) has failed to push her advantage as the lone non-Madisonian/non-Milwaukeean in the race. As for Secretary of State Douglas La Follette, voters know his last name (though he is only distantly related to the Fighting Bob family), but if I walked outside my house right now, I bet I couldn’t find five people in Ripon (a college town, remember) who know what the Wisconsin secretary of state does.

Falk represents everything bad about Dane County, not only to Republicans, but to many unaligned voters and a substantial number, based on how her campaign is going, of Democrats. (She also commits a blunder by speaking on her own commercials, allowing voters to ask themselves whether they really want to hear that voice for 2½ years. Voters rarely, if ever, heard Gov. James Doyle, similarly vocally challenged in different ways, speak on his commercials.) She is utterly, completely, totally beholden to public employee unions, which have not exactly endeared themselves to voters this past year.

Barrett has one, and only one, accomplishment in office – hiring the right police chief. Other than that, Barrett has done nothing, or succeeded in nothing, to deal with the problems that make Milwaukee the state capital of such social pathologies as horrible schools, high crime, high unemployment, and high minority unemployment. The fact he chickened out on pushing to get control of Milwaukee Public Schools suggests he lacks the stomach for a real political fight.

I’ve noted in this space before that I am not a member of the Republican Party. My political views veer between conservative and libertarian, and I would argue the GOP is too much of the former and not enough of the latter. I have voted for a few Democrats (some of whom were not labeled as such) and a couple of Libertarians. I believe all politicians, regardless of party (or lack thereof), need to be held accountable to the highest standard of performance in office. There is no such thing as too much criticism of politicians.

I wrote yesterday that had the state Democratic Party been competently run, it would have found someone other than the Feckless Four who could win the recall election, or for that matter the November 2010 election – to borrow a phrase from the 1990s, a “Third Way” Democrat (probably someone from neither Madison nor Milwaukee) opposed to those repressed, greedy Republicans and to the excesses of his or her own party.

My model is not a Wisconsinite, but arguably the most successful national Democrat of my lifetime, President Bill Clinton. (Hopefully minus the various moral flaws, specifically “bimbo eruptions.”) Before he got elected president, Clinton (who saw himself as a protégé of John F. Kennedy) won statewide races for attorney general and then governor in Arkansas, a state that was not then and is not now dominated by the Democratic Party. Clinton had the rare political ability (probably because Bill Clinton was always about Bill Clinton first and foremost) to work with whoever was in charge in the Arkansas legislature or in Congress, and to make voters think he was the reasonable alternative to the two extremes of the two parties. Having personal charisma (unlike Doyle, Barrett, and Falk) beyond the ability to scream yourself hoarse at Occupy ______ rallies helps too.

One way to do that is to be willing to take on the sacred cows. Democrats love to talk about “fighting for working families.” (Democrats love the whole “fighting” meme, which is ironic for a party that opposes fighting for yourself through gun ownership and self-defense.) To the state Democratic Party, the term “working families” appears to mean only families in which the workers are union members, which is something less than 10% of the electorate. Government employees represent 15% of the Wisconsin electorate. Tying yourself to that boat doesn’t seem to be working too well for the Democratic Party. If you are essentially ignoring 85% to 90% of the electorate, or pitting 10% to 15% against that 85% to 90%, you need a different strategy. And if you’re really “fighting for working families,” you have to take on those within your own party or its supporters whose work fights against working families.

Such a Democrat needs, for one thing, to stop genuflecting at the throne of Fighting Bob La Follette. The term “progressive” is one of those wonderful-sounding words empty of meaning beyond being a dog-whistle term for the political left. (Or the right, because to conservatives “progressive” equals “socialist” and “communist.”) The Progressives of a century ago believed in government’s ability to improve man, which got them into such places as promoting eugenics and Prohibition. (You’re probably not going to hear that historical detail at the next Fighting Bob Fest.) The term “progressive” today basically means knuckling under to the most radical elements of the Democratic Party, who want their worldview imposed on working families and everyone else.

What do working families want? They want security for themselves and opportunity for their children. Clinton pushed the Democratic Party from a group generally opposed to law and order (a carryover no doubt from the ’60s) to a party viewed as tough on crime. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton dramatically returned to Arkansas to sign the death warrant for a convicted murderer, which certainly looked good to voters even if the condemned criminal was mentally retarded. Happily for Democrats, police officers and corrections officers are union members.

The opportunity theme provides the biggest opportunity for taking on a Democratic sacred cow, the education establishment. Imagine a Democratic candidate for governor standing in front of one of the Milwaukee Public Schools asking for the media to hear why MPS schools have been so bad for so long. As MPS goes, the candidate should say, so goes Milwaukee, and as Milwaukee goes, so goes Wisconsin; we cannot improve the economy of this state without improving the schools in the largest city in this state.

Picking a public fight with the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the head of the Wisconsin Education Association Council and/or the MPS teachers union over school quality and performance would score enormous political points even among Republicans. Picking a public fight with Milwaukee’s mayor over quality of life issues would do the same thing, because, again, as Milwaukee goes, so goes Wisconsin.

One of Clinton’s moments of genius was taking away Republicans’ talking points, or appropriating them for himself. Who would have ever thought a Democrat would sign into law welfare reform and a major investor-friendly tax cut? Doyle’s first major speech as governor contained the pronouncement that “we must not, we cannot, and I will not raise taxes.” which lasted only until Democrats got a majority in both houses of the Legislature and they raised taxes by $2.1 billion. The direct result of that was the Democrats’ November 2010 election disaster.

Doyle was a fiscal disaster anyway, given that every one of his budgets was balanced in name only. (To be fair, Doyle was neither the first nor the last governor to balance budgets by “political math” instead of reality.) Given that most people drive cars, swiping money out of the transportation fund to balance the budget didn’t benefit working families. And his swiping money out of the Patients Compensation Fund was illegal, as determined by the state Supreme Court.

One thing our Third Wisconsin Way Democrat would need to do is do something Republicans refuse to do – change state law to require that budgets be balanced on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, not on a cash basis. Cash accounting is meant for the place where you’re having lunch today, not an enterprise than spends more than $30 billion each year.

Democrats also have an opportunity for more effective government. This state has 3,120 units of government – counties; cities, villages, and towns; school districts; technical college districts; and special-purpose districts such as sanitary or lake districts. Democrats could argue that, for instance, requiring towns that have one incorporated city or village within them to merge into that city or village would mean more effective delivery of government services.

Keeping with our accountability theme, our independent-friendly Democrat needs to get behind accountability in exchange for increased revenues from government. La Follette favors a 20% increase in the state sales tax, from 5% to 6%, with that extra $800 million to $900 million going to schools. A fiscally responsible Democrat would insist on making sure that money isn’t merely thrown at schools to spend on whatever they like.

Clinton created for himself an image as a business-friendly Democratic president. You cannot tear down an employer (as Democrats have been doing in this state throughout Recallarama) and expect its employees to do well. Democrats hate to talk about the state’s business climate because the state’s poor business climate rankings serve as a standing condemnation of policies enacted and supported by both parties. (Successful businesses, by the way, make more money and thus pay more taxes.) Given the importance of agriculture in this state, our Third Way Democrat should be publicly blasting the U.S. Labor Department for the idiocy reported here earlier today; again it would score more political points because a Democrat would be criticizing other Democrats while fighting for working farm families.

The Third Way between how regulation has been done in this state (that is, as much as possible) and no regulation at all (the Republican stereotype) is the often-cited but rarely seen “smart regulation.” That is in keeping with our candidate’s general theme of more efficient government – will what we want to do make the environment cleaner and workplaces safer with the lowest cost, in this case?

You might think I am describing a Wisconsin Democrat who doesn’t exist. But there are models in this state of mayors of medium-size cities who were Democrats who didn’t alienate non-Democratic voters. One example was Nancy Nusbaum, the former De Pere mayor and Brown County executive, before she started attacking those opposed to raising Brown County sales taxes for something other than Lambeau Field. Another is former Manitowoc Mayor Kevin Crawford, who now works for Orion Energy. Both left their cities in considerably better shape than when they were elected.

After Barrett or Falk lose the gubernatorial recall election June 5, and after Democrats do poorly in this fall’s elections, the Wisconsin Democratic Party will be interested in reinventing itself. (One of the first steps should be to fire their party chair and head of communications, both of whom are embarrassments to their own party.) We know how fickle Wisconsin voters are merely by noticing that the gubernatorial terms of Tommy Thompson and Doyle featured Democratic, Republican, and split control of the two houses of the Legislature. The 2010 statewide elections, which essentially reversed the results of the 2008 statewide elections, served as punishment for Democrats more than affirmation for Republicans.

There is obviously a lot of cynicism in this blog. (Cynicism about politics is a requirement of this blog.) Democrats are not going to abandon their core constituencies, either voters or donors, any more than Republicans are. The first goal of politics is to win elections. And if a substantial percentage of the electorate both sees itself as aligned with neither party and is disgusted with both parties, and you’re a member of one of those two parties, you need to come up with a strategy outside your party’s mainstream in order to meet political goal number one.

Republicans hope Democrats don’t take my advice. I’d suggest Democrats take my advice only if they want to win elections instead of merely assuaging their base.

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