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After Wisconsin

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Last week, Morning Joe’s eponymous host, Joe Scarborough, called the effort to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker “a political Pickett’s Charge” by the Democrats and the unions: “They ran up the hill when they didn’t have to.” If we were to extend the somewhat fanciful historical comparison, we could, I suppose, liken Walker’s supporters to the 6th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment—part of the famed Iron Brigade—whose successful charge on July 1 near Chambersburg Pike contributed to the Union victory at Gettysburg. (Perhaps Walker, in order to inspire his supporters before the vote, could repeat the famous order of Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes, delivered amidst battlefield confusion and carnage: “Forward! Forward! Charge! Align on the Colors! Align on the Colors!”)

Iron Brigade Monument

Needless to say, comparing Pickett’s troops to today’s union organizers and left-wing activists is unjust to the memory of the Confederate soldiers, whose courage and resolve compelled admiration, if not awe, from observers both North and South. And Scott Walker would be the first to gainsay any comparison of his efforts to the bravery and fortitude of the Iron Brigade, whose 1,900 soldiers took more than 1,100 casualties that day.

The Wisconsin recall election isn’t a modern-day battle of Gettysburg. But let’s hope the comparison holds at least in this respect—that the recall effort, like Pickett’s Charge, fails, and that the just cause prevails. And then, in the event of a victory for Walker on June 5, the task of today’s Republicans will be similar to the challenge facing the Union forces after Gettysburg: to turn a defensive success—halting the South’s advance into Pennsylvania, preventing Scott Walker from being removed from office halfway through his term—into a strategic victory in the broader conflict.

This the North, much to President Lincoln’s chagrin, failed to do. On July 7, Lincoln commented, “If Gen. Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.” But despite Lincoln’s entreaties, Meade allowed Lee’s army to retreat and then cross back over the Potomac to safety in the South. As Lincoln said, “Our army held the war in the hollow of their hand and they would not close it!”

Can the forces of political reform today do a better job of closing their victorious hand? Here is one simple thing the Romney campaign can do: Associate Mitt Romney with Governor Walker’s success—and the successes of other governors—in making the case for a national agenda of conservative reform of a bloated and bankrupt welfare state.

One problem for any challenger is to show that his untested policies will work when he’s in office. Another problem for a Republican running for president in 2012 is to unshackle himself from the perceived failures of the last Republican president. Both problems can be dealt with by having Romney become the tribune and representative of the successful Republican governors.

Campaigns tend to focus on making the case for their uniquely qualified candidate. But the case for Romney as president is immeasurably strengthened if it’s not just about Mitt Romney. His case is reinforced by the successes of governors like Mitch Daniels and Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell and Scott Walker and Susana Martinez. These governors have had real successes dealing with the fiscal and financial challenges their states have faced. And this during the same period in which President Obama (and to some degree President Bush before him) failed to grapple with comparable problems at the national level—and at the same time that Democratic governors and legislators in states like Illinois and California have conspicuously failed.

If Team Romney can become Team Romney-Walker-Daniels-Christie-et al., Romney’s campaign will take on a sharper focus. His chances of prevailing this fall will increase. It’s true that he might win anyway in a long and difficult slog. But a Walker victory in Wisconsin on the first Tuesday in June could provide a defining moment for the Romney campaign—and for the forces of responsible Republican reform against reactionary Democratic opposition.

It’s up to the Romney campaign to seize that moment and spend the months after June 5 explaining that a Republican president is needed to complete at the national level the “work so gloriously prosecuted so far” by Republican governors.

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