In The News
Beep-beep! Wile E. Walker run down in second debate
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted June 1, 2012
It wasn’t as dramatic, but even objective observers thought that the more casual Thursday night “conversation” – only the second “debate” that Scott Walker would allow with challenger Tom Barrett in the race for governor, a sit-down affair at conservative Marquette University Law School with moderator Mike Gousha – was again won by Barrett. Though the mayor got in some strong licks, his win on the way to the June 5 election had more to with the governor’s one-note attacks and constant avoidance when confronted with harsh realities.
Walker’s problems of evasion haunted him even as he tried to attack Barrett harder this time, particularly on whether Barrett had a plan to lead once he won and more desperately on the mayor’s record in Milwaukee, which opened the door to point out how little Walker had done for the city’s impoverished in more than eight years as county executive and how now, miraculously weeks before an election, he suddenly discovered money to help in the state he once called economically “broken” to justify his attacks on education and public unions.
Walker was banking on one big complaint –that Barrett would be unwilling to detail how he would solve the budget deficit if he were going to restore collective bargaining rights. (He clearly wanted Barrett to use the word “taxes.”) The challenger agreed he would restore basic bargaining rights on all wages and benefits but didn’t fall into the larger trap, knowing that Walker was engaging in the bullying prejudgment that marks his style in office. Obviously you don’t announce your details before you negotiate. It’s easy for Walker who never negotiated. But Barrett made it clear he is not afraid to talk openly to the other side, which could well be the Republicans in the legislature, many of whom will breathe a sigh of relief once Walker is gone.
Barrett did say flatly that he expected unions, teachers and business – everyone – to work together, another contrast with Walker’s “to hell with you” style. Of course, there always will be some who like Walker’s “no prisoners” approach. But they know, as Barrett said, “that isn’t Wisconsin.”
What blows Walker could land on Barrett quickly got confusingly stuck in statistical mud. He knows that his equally miraculous better job numbers – which still put Wisconsin last in the Midwest, as Barrett mischievously pointed out – can’t be proven or disproven until after the election, but even as that became clear to viewers he kept plugging.
Likewise, until the FBI completes its audit there is no evidence that Milwaukee’s serious crime levels are higher not lower – a point Gousha failed to pick up on. But Walker kept pitching despite the obvious danger. The only governor in the nation requiring a criminal defense fund supported by more than $100,000 in campaign donations shouldn’t let the words “crime” and “Walker” close to each other.
Every attack on Milwaukee crime statistics became another opening to talk about the John Doe probe slowly encircling him (yet another of his spokesperson was just granted immunity to talk openly about discussions in his office).
It looked for a while like Walker had an unintended ally in the format used by Gousha, who was prepared to ask some tough questions but had his eye on the clock and a list of issues he wanted to work through. That left little follow-through on questions that Walker was clearly prepared to adroitly duck or inflate his defense.
The breaking John Doe news that same day was an unanticipated horror for Walker. He had been riding a lot of his hopes – and even campaign ads -- by playing up his support for and by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He even described JS as Barrett’s hometown newspaper, which may be true geographically but in terms of objectivity is quite a stretch. It was there that Barrett’s crime statistics had come into question. (One overstatement Gousha failed to follow up on was the claim that the police had refused an open records request when more thoughtful discussions noted the police resisted providing the costly loose-cannon records search for free.)
But if JS was so believable, how was Walker to deal with its revelation that he wasn’t truthful? A story that day undercut one of his major debate claims -- that he had encouraged a John Doe probe into his hires’ behavior. JS uncovered documents that Walker’s office actually resisted the John Doe inquiry two years ago, either “unwilling” or “unable” to cooperate. Walker in the debate seized on that “unable” but the damage was done. And his attack on Barrett’s integrity led to the mayor’s best one-liner: “I have a police department that arrests felons. He has a practice of hiring them.”
Another goof came when he explained his unwillingness to talk to all sides – a key concept of Barrett’s idea of governance – because the unions were the “special interest groups” that needed to be curbed. Yet he said that on video and tape to billionaires, whom many would think of as “special interests” rather than groups representing the middle class. Yet they have escaped tax penalties and even are getting tax breaks.
He also completely failed to dodge the issue of “right to work” saying it would “never come up” but refusing again and again to say he would veto such a bill. That simply left the door open for Barrett to speak the truth – “Mark my words, he will” – noting that Walker would lose his “rock star” luster with the right wing if he turned down the idea.
So largely Barrett didn’t have to do much but let the governor twist in the wind. When Walker said his idea of campaign finance reform would be to change the recall laws, he was particularly vulnerable, conceding that he had been elected in the recall threat to the earlier county executive but admitting that was legitimate. Wisconsin has to think about that, because Tom Ament was never charged with criminal misconduct but with pension policy ineptness. Now the governor who says only criminal conduct justifies recalls admits that behavior in office does justified being tossed out. I guess there is now no reason for voters to wait to see what the John Doe reveals.