In The News
Who won the debate is easy – real question is final impact
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted May 29, 2012
In news story after story, the main reaction to the first Walker-Barrett debate was partly context but not open acknowledgement that Barrett won hands down (though most commentators conceded that bluntly a day later). The theme was largely that Barrett was just the more aggressive underdog -- one story even said “negative” -- implying desperation in so directly attacking Walker’s evasiveness and divisiveness.
What the viewers saw instead was quite different -- serious dismay from Barrett the mature candidate over the head-ducking and rather childish Walker refusal to follow democratic rules of negotiating and working with both sides in office, along with his disinterest in middle class rights, his flights to protective far-away right-wing castles for fund-raising events, even his failure within his own party to pass his key legislative initiatives in iron mining and venture capital.
Walker, apparently playing it safe in premature confidence he was ahead, fell back on familiar scripted answers that his approach was working -- despite the mounting evidence it isn’t in either job numbers or harmony.
Looking back at the course of the debate, it wasn’t just Barrett that Walker avoided answering. He slipped the questions from the panel of journalists, taking advantage of the bizarre rules the prevented them from following up on whether it was right to raise 60-70% of $25 million campaign money from out of state and whether he was a indeed a target of the John Doe corruption probe for which he had created a criminal defense fund.
All this left gleeful recall advocates a lot to crow about. The Democratic Party immediately blasted out this email: "Walker's refusal to answer the very simple question of did he or didn't he sign his name on a recall petition is yet another stunning example of why we can't trust this governor. He won't tell people why he has a criminal defense fund. He won't release to the public thousands of emails about the John Doe criminal probe. He won't disclose details of his national political travel, including which extreme, right-wing mega-donors he met with and what he promised them.”
Liberals watching the debate may have wished for harsher language from Barrett, but he was smarter than that, staying on the high road of thinly disguised disappointment at how poorly Walker had done in office. I confess that I tweeted during the debate that Walker’s Eagle Scout badge “must have been in dodge ball” so frequently did he weave around and muddy the discussion. Others told me they wanted Barrett to call him “the glibbest fibber we’ve ever had as governor” (true enough) or “I can tell he’s lying because his lips are moving” (an old joke indeed). Yet the mayor of Milwaukee resisted the obvious road of derision, sticking with direct attacks, refusing to be drawn into rhetorical asides –- pointedly noting when Walker repeated a standard advertising line that actually, when he was county executive, unemployment and property tax increases for Milwaukee County were higher than they ever were under Barrett in the city of Milwaukee.
More objective sources characterizing the debate offered a dramatic description -- the stern father figure lecturing the guilty novice caught with his fingers in the cookie jar.
On a pleasant Memorial Day weekend it’s doubtful that many actually watched the Friday debate, but with only two debates before June 5 and keen citizen interest, plus runaway success for Barrett, the consequence will continue to radiate out in all sorts of media over several days. Instant proof of how well Barrett pulled it all off was how quickly highlights from the debate became fund-raising pitches for his camp while Walker, just tripping over all the ad money in his coffers, still couldn’t find as of this writing a single debate moment to plug into his ads. Instead he continued to concoct “apples and oranges” financial trickery (the ad poking fun at Barrett’s streetcar plan but not pointing out that this was long dormant federal money while Walker pretends it is somehow related to the state budget deficit).
It’s understandable that news stories regarded Barrett as employing underdog tactics rather than describing the Walker behavior that gave so much emotional weight to his accusations. The media approach fits a scenario of assuming that Walker has too much money to lose and that history is on the side of both the incumbent and the heavy financiers, as I have discussed before.
Yet it’s strange because in the next breath the media has to admit this race is like no other and that many once trusted factors no longer apply. The first set of polls can be explained on many fronts – and already by Memorial Day the gap had shrunk.
I’m sure Barrett would welcome financial aid from Alaska if he could get it, but when Journal Sentinel made up a story May 27 about his inability to catch Walker in ad money, it avoided the obvious reality that he wasn’t even trying to. From Barrett’s perspective, all he needs to win is “monster turnout.”
From my perspective, what Walker needs despite the polling numbers and supportive local media is hold fast to his right-wing base and still the doubts emerging in general Republican ranks. And there are doubts. Many doubts. He will hang on to these folks mainly because political parties cherish powers and do not eagerly cross over to the other side. But many Republicans tell me they are morally torn, wishing they had a standard bearer with less character flaws and a more acceptable set of principles.
The John Doe probe is clearly sticking them hard. It is clear Walker knew about the campaign corruption and was part of the illegal network setup in his Courthouse suite --- and even his choice of hires seemed calculated to encourage rule bending. More evidence is hovering that this is part of a larger pattern. Moderate members of the GOP can’t escape thinking that, and the kneejerk excuse (DA Chisholm is a Democrat) carries little weight given Chisholm’s straight-arrow rigidity, how he has ignored political blandishments from both sides.
The morality involved is also working against turnout for Walker. Even those who dislike the organizational power of unions were taken aback by his ruthlessly attacking their very existence even after they agreed to the concessions he sought. Nor anymore do many believe that the problems of the state rested on these working class salaries and benefits, especially given Walker’s largesse to his corporate backers despite claims of how the state was going through economic horrors.
Perhaps Christian principles shouldn’t play a major part in politics, given how often these lead to one-issue politics, but even in the governor’s race they hare reared up. Conservative religious people admit to me that they are sorely troubled by what Walker’s behavior has revealed about his fundamental understanding of church teachings despite – or maybe because of -- his family past and his constant summoning in debates of his family image. They know Barrett has a nice family image, too, and how many politicians have used that family values stuff to disguise real motives.
So they are not persuaded by his constant claims that being an Eagle Scout shows lifelong integrity, which was his key defense in the debate. (These doubters had better not read the harsh memories of Walker from his college classmate at Marquette when the campus newspaper labeled him unfit to govern.)
The media – perhaps correctly believing that Republicans will stick by their man because he represents power – have not examined the doubts now swirling around the GOP camps, focusing instead on whether the Democrats are sufficiently motivated to storm the polls. But Barrett also scored points by addressing frankly in the debate that he was not the unions first choice and that the true test of leadership is ability he has long demonstrated -- saying no to his friends. That is not the impression Walker left in the “divide and conquer” video that upended his campaign strategy weeks ago.
It will be curious to see the news coverage if Walker’s showing at the polls turns to negatives by the second debate Thursday. Will the media that thought Barrett so aggressive because of underdog status view Walker’s behavior through the same colored glasses? Will they call him aggressive out of desperation? Or will we finally deal with the behavior in office that truly underlies the recall?