Scott Walker's Future and Obama's Past

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 2 2011 9:04 AM

Scott Walker's Future and Obama's Past

So, here's the scenario. A politician wins an election with around 53.5 percent of the vote; a solid number, enough to claim a mandate. His party is swept into power, too, with margins in both houses of the legislature that are big enough to push through his entire agenda. But in the first months, he overreaches. He tries to ram through a piece of legislation that he didn't really campaign on. It sparks protests from angry voters, most of whom voted against the new guy, but were not this energized. When it gets to the lower House it's unanimously opposed by the opposition party, and even a few members of the new guy's own party oppose it.

I'm talking about Scott Walker in Wisconsin. I'm also talking about Barack Obama in those long-ago days of January and February 2009. I remember when Obama's push for the stimulus package and the bailouts of the auto industry, two things he had not campaigned on, inspired the first wave of Tea Party activists to protest him. The Tea Party critique of Obama and the left-wing/union critique of Walker had a few similar themes; the key one is that Obama/Walker are exploiting a crisis to get partisan victories they never could have gotten otherwise.

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The partisanship problem is a big one. In his profile of Mitch McConnell, Joshua Green got the minority leader to explain why it was important for Republicans to deny any bipartisan cover to Obama initiatives.

We thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the 'bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.

It's hard to get less bipartisan than a situation where Democrats in one House are screaming at Republicans when they pass a bill and Democrats in the other House are living on the lam to block a vote. The conventional wisdom was that Democrats were making themselves look fringe; no one wins a PR battle with the executive, with all the news-making power he has. Except Republicans won the PR battle with Obama, by denying him votes on the stimulus then denying that the stimulus created any jobs.

In the early days of the Wisconsin standoff, some pundits speculated that Scott Walker was becoming a new Chris Christie, a folk hero who'd take on unions and julienne them with common sense. Hey, Walker could still win this thing. But for now, he seems a lot more like the early, unsteady Obama. He has not spoken in public, outside the confines of news conferences, since the impasse started; when he tried to go to a Madison restaurant, he was recognized and heckled. There haven't been great polls yet, but the polls we have show Walker slipping below 50 percent support and up to 48 percent support for a 2012 recall election. The "Feingold for Governor 2012" signs I saw in Madison looked fairly silly. But you would have said the same things about "Scott Brown for Senate" signs in September 2009.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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