Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, faced off last night in the first of two debates leading up to the June 5 gubernatorial recall election. There weren’t any fireworks, and it’s unlikely that the hour-long debate held on the Friday evening of Memorial Day weekend swayed the polarized Wisconsin electorate. But the debate did reveal why Walker is consistently leading Barrett in the polls.
It’s neither money nor merely superior messaging that’s given Walker the edge, as some have suggested. Both candidates were polished and on message, though the tone and substance of each man’s message was strikingly different. Walker is leading in the polls because he's winning on the issues. During the debate, Walker touted his polices and their positive results: balanced budgets at the state and local level, decreasing property taxes, positive job growth. "The good news is our reforms are working. It's why largely our opponents don't talk about them anymore,” Walker said. Indeed, Barrett didn’t focus on Walker’s policies. He focused on attacking Walker’s character.
During his opening remarks, almost all the lines of attack Barrett launched were character attacks on Walker. But each attack was refuted by Walker and/or contradicted by Barrett himself. In one breath, Barrett accused Walker of starting a “political civil war” that made it "impossible in some instances for neighbor to talk to neighbor ... because it was too bitter a fight." In the next breath, Barrett was bitterly accusing Walker of putting “his national ambitions ahead of the state of Wisconsin as he traveled around the country and became the rock star to Tea Party activists and billionaires.”
The mayor was testy and addressed Walker, often in an accusatory manner, as “You” or “Scott”—not “Governor Walker.” Walker, who learned to give press conferences last spring as throngs of protesters were literally banging on doors just down the hallway in the state's Capitol building, was unflappable. (Watch the full debate here, and judge for yourself.)
Barrett hardly seemed like the person to restore civility to politics as he dwelled on a “John Doe” investigation of aides who served in Walker's county executive office and sent campaign-related emails from work computers. Barrett dubbed these activities a “criminal enterprise.” Walker pointed out that Barrett’s election would only instigate more fighting over a settled issue. "He wants to go back and completely restore collective bargaining. That means we're going to have that battle all over again," Walker said. In a 60-minute debate, Barrett couldn’t bring himself to make such a clear pledge to restore collective bargaining rights—the very issue that had sparked a year of protests and recall elections. “I am concerned about those rights. I am concerned that those rights have been taken away," was all Barrett could muster when a debate moderator brought up the issue.
Barrett focused on just one issue directly related to the substance of Walker’s policies, claiming that Wisconsin had lost more jobs than any other state in the country during the past year. Walker dispatched the talking point by pointing out that the report Barrett was relying on surveyed 3.5 percent of state employers, but the report Walker was relying on surveyed 96 percent of employers and indicates the state gained roughly 30,000 jobs.
And so Barrett has been reduced to denouncing Scott Walker as a divisive person rather than pointing to negative effects of his policies. He can't explain what substantively is wrong with Walker's policies, and he's been unwilling to say what he would do differently. “It's been 44 days since he was first asked... 'If this is about undoing the past year and a half, what would you do?' He hasn't told the voters. He doesn't have a plan," Walker said.
Despite his general evasiveness, Barrett was clear about one controversial issue last night: The mayor endorsed gay marriage, just six years after 59 percent of Wisconsin voters passed a constitutional marriage amendment. That issue, combined with Barrett's endorsement of taxpayer-funding of abortion, could help turn out values voters to an election that's dominated by fiscal issues.
When asked if there's anything he would have done differently in office, Walker said he would have explained his reforms better. "My problem was I fixed it, then I talked about it. Most politicians spend all their time talking about it but never fix it." Still, Walker said he was proud of his reforms, and now it's important for the state to "move on and move forward, and I'm the candidate to do that."