The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

April 30, 2008

Second verse, same as the first

This past weekend, former Assembly Speaker John Gard announced he’s running for the Eighth Congressional District seat he lost to Democrat Steve Kagen in 2006.

Ordinarily, given that Kagen has already beaten Gard once, one would not give Gard much of a chance to win the rematch (think Dwight Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson), especially considering that conventional wisdom says 2008 will be a bad year for Republicans. I’m not sure the conventional wisdom isn’t changing, though. Since Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama appear to be on a course of Mutually Assured Destruction, John McCain’s chances of winning the presidency improve every day that the Democratic presidential race goes on. According to Rasmussen Reports, which does daily presidential tracking polls, the race is clearly too close to call, whether McCain faces Obama or Clinton.

That poll question, though, means less than doing the harder work of adding up electoral votes. As of Monday, Obama/Clinton had the lead in states with 200 electoral votes, while McCain led in states with 189 electoral votes; if you add “leaners,” Obama/Clinton led 260–240. Given how much of a disaster this coming election was supposed to be, McCain’s in a pretty good place after all. Additional good news for McCain comes from another Rasmussen poll in which those surveyed trust McCain more than either Clinton (natch) or Obama on the economy, the war in Iraq, national security and taxes.

The 2004 presidential election taught political geeks that lesson number one is to turn out your base. McCain has had issues with conservatives, and some prominent ones have announced they’re either not going to vote in November, or not vote for McCain. (Those evidently never heard the thoughts of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” More on that subject in a future post.) However, one of the lessons of the 2006 midterm elections was that ignoring the swing vote makes you lose, and it’s pretty obvious that McCain is better suited to drawing independent-minded voters than his more conservative primary opponents.

It’s been generally assumed that winning presidential candidates have, or at least should have, swept along candidates of their party into Congress. Republicans controlled at least one house of Congress in six of George W. Bush’s eight years in office, and had both houses between 2003 and 2007. When Ronald Reagan swept Jimmy Carter into the dustbin of political history in 1980, the Senate also changed from Democratic control to Republican control, and that stayed until 1987. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, both houses of Congress were already under Democratic control, and his first two years went so well that, by 1995, both houses of Congress switched to GOP control. (Which makes one wonder why there’s such Democratic fondness for the Clintons — in the eight years he/they were in office, Clinton got more than 50 percent of the vote in neither election, and lost control of Congress, which no one thought was even possible in 1994.)

A McCain win might help Gard or another Republican candidate in the Eighth District. The fact one can remember the Democratic congressmen from the Eighth — Rev. Robert Cornell (1975–79), elected in the wake of Watergate; Jay Johnson (1997–99), who won the same night Clinton was re-elected; and Kagen, elected on a generally bad night for Republicans — suggests that the Eighth is a Republican-leaning district, largely because there’s no evidence that there isn’t.

Gard is part of a club that I’m sure he’d love to leave — Republicans who have lost in the Eighth. Cornell won over one-term incumbent Harold Froehlich, who replaced 28-year incumbent John Byrnes, in an election in which one had to struggle to find any GOP wins. Cornell, who left because Pope John Paul II prohibited Catholic priests from holding political office, left four years later, and Toby Roth spent the next 18 years in Washington. After he retired, Johnson won over then-state Rep. David Prosser, now a state Supreme Court justice, but his stay in Washington ended with a loss to then-state Rep. Mark Green in 1998. Green has been rumored to be a candidate for his old job in 2008; as much as he seems to enjoy being ambassador to Tanzania, he seems more likely to run for governor again in 2010 since a Democratic president isn’t likely to keep him as an ambassador.

Both Prosser and Gard were speakers of the Assembly, one of the most public positions in state politics. I pointed out Friday that of the two houses of the Legislature, the Assembly, unlike the Senate, is a dictatorship of the majority party, and by far the most contentious (the difference between the Assembly and the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison is that Feast with the Beasts is at the Zoo) and most polarized (Democrats are more liberal in the Assembly than in the Senate, and Republicans are more conservative in the Assembly than in the Senate) of the two houses. Both Prosser and Gard thus generated a record as Assembly speaker, much more so than any other state rep, and records are of course fair game in politics. Gard’s major failure as Assembly speaker was not getting the Taxpayer Bill of Rights passed when he had his chance (both houses of the Legislature were controlled by Republicans when Gard was speaker). Neither Prosser nor Gard had very good campaigns in their respective runs for office, one reason why names such as former Green Bay Mayor Paul Jadin come up as potential alternative Eighth District candidates. And Republicans running for Congress and the Senate suffered due to the fact that congressional Republicans, instead of sticking to the principles on which they were elected, governed as Democrats who spend slightly less money.

Kagen now has a record too — specifically, a voting record, which matches House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 95 percent of the time (it is a “master of the obvious” kind of statement to say that the political culture of the Eighth Congressional District of Wisconsin is more conservative than that of the Eighth Congressional District of California), and matches National Taxpayers Union positions 7 percent of the time. Contrary to what you see on Kagen’s House Web site — Kagen “responds to the needs of small business and consumers!” Kagen “assists homeowners!” Kagen “protects Great Lakes from invasive species!” — he seems to specialize in sticking his foot in his mouth and making proposals that completely miss the point (recall his solution to high gas prices) or are constitutionally dubious at best (for instance, his discovery that health insurance preexisting condition exclusions constitute discrimination, a discovery made by no constitutional scholar I’m aware of). Despite his promise to not let his constituents down, he already has, by aligning himself with the most left-wing elements of his party, one of the things that made Johnson the only Democratic congressman to lose a reelection bid in 1998.

It amazes me that Kagen got elected in the first place given how he talked as a candidate — suggesting that crimes are a cry for help by the criminal and his infamous “Injun Time” comment (no Republican would ever get away with saying that). Wisconsin voters (or at least a majority of them) have this habit of making the wrong choices, such as, in 2006, choosing Jim Doyle for governor over Green, inexplicably choosing the nonentity Dawn Marie Sass over Treasurer Jack Voight, and choosing Kagen over Gard. Eighth District voters should be ashamed of themselves for having elected someone who believes Kagen’s behavior in his first month in office is how adults should act, and someone who had to be called to task by the state’s largest newspaper (which, by the way, endorsed him in 2006) not for political positions, but for behavior. (As his predecessor said at the time, “He has already forgotten the first important rule of being a congressman. And that is when you speak, especially in Washington, D.C., you don’t speak for yourself. You speak for and represent a whole bunch of folks back home.”) Kagen should have stayed at his medical practice, where he can do actual good for people, instead of doing actual ill in Congress. Comparatively speaking, former Brown County Executive Nancy Nusbaum (one of the few people in Wisconsin political history who has run for Congress as both a Republican and a Democrat) would have been a better Democratic choice than Kagen.

There are two truisms that apply to the Eighth District: (1) The easiest race to win is an open seat, as both Johnson and Kagen found out, but (2) the hardest race for an incumbent to win is his or her first try for re-election. I think Kagen will discover the latter to be true, whether his ultimate GOP candidate is Gard or someone else.

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