Lack Of Strategy, Discipline Equals Unnecessary Defeat In Wisconsin

Did you hear about the big win for the Democrats in Wisconsin Tuesday night?

I’m completely serious.

The Democrats retook the Wisconsin State Senate on Tuesday by winning a swing district centered in Racine County, in the southeastern corner of the state. Former state senator John Lehman, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Republican Van Wanggaard to reclaim the seat Wanggaard took from Lehman in 2010. The result is that Democrats now hold a 17-16 advantage in the Wisconsin Senate, and Republicans will need to net at least one seat in November—or face the end of Gov. Scott Walker’s ability to do anything without Democratic consent for the rest of his term.

This was a huge win for the Democrats.

But you probably didn’t hear about it, because Wisconsin’s Democrats also made the mistake of trying to recall Walker. And we all know what happened there. Walker, buoyed by both monetary and structural advantages, easily defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for the second time in three years. The national media have been talking about it non-stop.

Today, Democrats across the country are disappointed and disheartened, and Democrats in Wisconsin have about $4 million less at their disposal for the elections this fall. But hey, there’s nothing much important happening in November—just a presidential race and an open-seat U.S. Senate race that could determine control of Congress.

And, sure, Republicans had to spend $30 million defending Walker from being recalled, but in the post-Citizens United world, does anyone think they’ll miss it, with their wealthy donors ready to spend whatever it takes to defeat Democrats at every level across the country?

This was a victory we didn’t need to hand to the Republicans, but we did it anyway. Why?

Because, as has been amply demonstrated once again, we on the left have absolutely no discipline and no ability to see past our own righteous indignation and think strategically.

For the record, I’m not talking out of sheer hindsight here. I was against the attempt to recall Walker from the start, and I discussed my reasons in an earlier post from May 15. As much as I wish I had been completely wrong, my post shows pretty clearly that I saw this whole fiasco coming. Why couldn’t the Democrats of Wisconsin see it?

Recalling Walker wasn’t necessary, and frankly, we were never going to beat him anyway. The way gubernatorial recalls in Wisconsin are set up give a huge institutional advantage to the incumbent. While Democrats had to go through a primary, and only had a month to regroup for the general recall, Walker had tons of time to raise money and go on the airwaves before the Democrats could even select a nominee. The recall was lost before the Democrats had even settled on a candidate.

What was far more important than getting Walker was depriving Walker of his ability to pass laws. That’s why the legislative recalls that started in 2011 were, in contrast to the Walker recall, a sound idea—but also poorly executed.

Democrats in 2011 went after six Republican Senators, but they never had a hope in hell of beating more than three of them. They did defeat two and narrowly missed beating a third, which would have given them control of the Senate. If they hadn’t wasted resources firing blindly and going after three Republican Senators they were never going to beat, maybe they could have picked up that third seat and won the Senate in 2011.

This year, Democrats went after four more Republican Senators, two of whom they never had any chance whatsoever to beat. A third, Pam Galloway, resigned rather than face the recall and was replaced on the ballot by her predecessor, who ended up being a far stronger candidate and winning. They did manage to beat Wanggaard to take the Senate, a terrific symbolic victory that would have made national headlines—if, of course, the Democrats had not taken on Walker and lost. But aside from the symbolic value, which we threw away, winning the state Senate right now means very little. The legislature went out of session in May and won’t reconvene until after the election. Winning the Senate in 2011, before the 2012 legislative session, would have been far more useful.

So let’s review. Democrats in Wisconsin went after 10 state Senators in two years—five of whom they never had a chance in hell of beating—and ultimately defeated three. In half of those races, they’d have done just as well to set their money on fire. And by losing a race against Walker that they never should have run, they stepped all over what could have been their headline, the headline that could have gotten Democrats across the country inspired and ready to rally for November: Democrats Take Wisconsin Senate. But nobody noticed that in the wake of Walker’s win, and now it’s the Republicans who are pumped up and ready to run through walls heading into the fall elections.

Oh, and by the way, how much harder is it going to be now to beat Walker in 2014, now that he has prevailed and also demonstrated how much money he can raise? Top-tier Democrats may well steer clear of taking him on now. We Democrats didn’t just fail to take Scott Walker out in 2012; we just made him stronger and probably cleared his path to a second term. Brilliant.

I understand why Wisconsin Democrats were angry after Walker and the Republicans gutted public-sector unions in 2011. Democrats everywhere, including myself, were livid about it. But until we Democrats learn to channel our anger—and think clearly and strategically rather than just lashing out in all directions—we will continue to blow opportunities and hand needless victories to the Republicans.

I’m sure a lot of people won’t like what I’ve said here, but dammit, somebody had to say it. If we don’t learn a little discipline and a little strategic thinking, we’re never going to win elections except in years when Republicans screw up so badly (see 2006, 2008) that the country can’t stomach them anymore.

And as we are learning, those rare, lucky victories don’t last long (see 2010). Wake up, Democrats. We need to learn to ask questions first and shoot later.