By Kevin Binversie
If Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Wisconsin showed us anything, it’s that the Democratic machine has returned with a vengeance.
In electing Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as their candidate in the June recall against Gov. Scott Walker, the party apparatchiks reasserted their authority over the recall. They swept aside labor. They put elbows in the ribs of those who launched the recall protest last February.
If Barrett’s victory was a movie, it would not be “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” More like “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Even so Barrett isn’t “Mr. Right” (or “Mr. Left,” in this case). He’s more like “Mr. Right There” for many in the party elite. His critics say Barrett is “milquetoast” or that you’ll find his photograph on a milk carton. He earned that reputation after a decade in Congress and more than eight years as Milwaukee mayor. Where big ideas are concerned, he’s an unknown. He’s ideologically dependable. When there’s bad news, he disappears altogether.
So how is the man who’s known for avoiding political fights in public suddenly the would-be champion in Wisconsin’s biggest political fight ever?
The Barrett candidacy is about two things, neither of which has anything to do with the bargaining rights of public-sector employees.
The first is ambition. Barrett wants to be governor. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you. Ignore the fact that — just one month ago — Barrett was re-elected to a third, four-year term in his “back-up job” as mayor. Barrett has shown consistently that he’d prefer to be governor, with unsuccessful runs for the state’s top job in 2002 and 2010.
Second, the Democratic establishment sees Barrett as a known and established commodity, especially after his 2010 run. This allows the party to use its resources — and its limited time — to get out the vote instead of trying to re-introduce a candidate in a month’s time between the primary and general election.
“Tom Barrett is getting the gift that every unsuccessful candidate dreams about: a do-over. This isn’t a rematch, it’s a re-vote,” said GOP strategist Mark Graul. “The next 27 days won’t be about treading new ground on policy or offering big ideas; it’s purely about which side can most effectively turnout its voters.”
A look at Barrett’s campaign platform supports that conclusion. And while his campaign ads make bold proclamations about unity, rumors are his campaign killed a unity rally with his fellow Democrats.
Barrett also has not given a straight answer as to how he would have balanced the state’s finances — something he would have had to do had he won in November 2010 — and dealt with the $3.6 billion structural deficit differently than Walker did.
He attacks Walker’s jobs agenda, but when pushed for ideas, he says wind turbines are the future. How he plans to push Wisconsin’s wind energy industry — where millions in directed stimulus funds have failed? He does not explain.
The Walker recall campaign has been called “a campaign without a candidate,” which may well be the case, even with the Barrett candidacy. Those seeking Walker’s removal may not care much for his policy lapses on the union agenda, but only him because he’s the guy with the best shot.
One has to marvel, that for a man who has twice lost a bid for governor, Barrett appears to have discovered his best chance for victory may come not with campaigning on an agenda. Instead, all he had to do was simply fill a role in a production in which he played a bit part.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.