Yesterday there was an election for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court (and yes, it’s insane that we choose judges this way, a system used almost nowhere else in the world). The election was won rather easily by the liberal candidate, Rebecca Dallet.
In response, Gov. Scott Walker (R) issued a call to arms for Republicans in his state and around the country:
This idea that politicians win by sharing “our positive story with voters” is a common part of our collective mythology about how campaigns work. But it’s utterly, completely wrong.
I’m pretty sure nobody understands that fact better than Walker. Because there may be no governor in the United States who has worked harder to rig the game in his party’s favor than he has. As soon as he got elected, Walker began a long war on unions in the state, knowing they are one of the cornerstones of Democratic power. He signed a voter ID law that successfully disenfranchised thousands of voters. He rewrote the state’s campaign finance laws to decrease transparency and enhance corporate influence. And he presided over one of the most aggressive gerrymanders of state legislative districts anywhere in the country, which has allowed Republicans to retain large majorities in the legislature even when they get fewer votes than Democrats.
In other words, Walker doesn’t seem to believe that sharing his positive story with voters is enough to win elections. And on that, he’s completely right.
For better or worse — usually, but not always, for worse — fear and anger are much more powerful determinants of election outcomes than which party has the more compelling positive story to tell. The reason the opposition party almost always picks up seats in midterm elections is that they’re the ones who are mad, so they’re the ones who turn out to vote.
It happens in general elections, too. Every once in a while you get a candidate like Barack Obama running on hope, but even in 2008, his win was fed in no small part by anger at President George W. Bush. And it’s a little rich for Walker to claim that Democrats are driven by anger and hatred, when the leader of his party got elected by saying Mexicans are rapists and by promising to build a wall on our border, ban Muslims from entering the country and throw his opponent in jail.
But let’s say the Republican Party decided that Walker is right, and they just need to share their positive story this fall. What would they say?
Well, they’d say they cut taxes. And … um … yeah … they cut taxes.
That gets to a key weakness of the GOP’s “positive story.” As the party of small government, their positive story is pretty thin. They’ve had complete control of government for nearly 15 months, and what have they done besides that tax cut? They tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They repealed some Obama-era regulations. They haven’t reformed the immigration system, though they did manage to pass a budget. They increased military spending.
But that’s pretty much it, and Republicans have decided they aren’t going to be doing any more major legislation between now and the election. The only big things they want to do are things they know the public would freak out about, like privatizing Medicare, so they aren’t going to try. It doesn’t add up to much of a positive story to tell, even if you think that a positive story is what they need to prevent that blue wave.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that parties don’t need to tell voters what they want to accomplish. We’re seeing that with the Democrats that have been having such success in special and off-year elections since 2016: They’ve talked plenty about what they want to do in office. But they’ve also counted on anger at President Trump to get their voters excited and mobilized. As the party of government, they have a much more substantial agenda to offer. But it’s only in years such as this one, when their voters have reason to be mad, that they can really capitalize.
But we’re going to keep getting told this tale about how the positive story is what matters. After every loss in the last year or so, Republicans have repeated some variation of: “We just didn’t do a good enough job explaining how great our policies are.” If only they had been able to make people understand how the tax cut has transformed everyone’s lives for the better, they would have won in a rout. I can promise you, if there is indeed a blue wave this November, Republicans are certain to keep saying that it was a failure of communication, not of their (or Trump’s) policies or ideas.
The sad truth is that we’re caught in a cycle of reaction and counter-reaction that shows no sign of abating. Bill Clinton got elected and then Republicans got mad and took back Congress, then George W. Bush got elected and Democrats got mad and took back Congress, then Obama got elected and Republicans got mad and took back Congress, then Trump got elected and Democrats got mad and are probably going to take back Congress, or at least the House.
But if the GOP wants to follow Walker’s advice and keep telling their positive story, they should go right ahead and see how it works out for them.