Monday, May 16, 2011

After Kohl

U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D–Wisconsin) announced Friday that four terms in the U.S. Senate was enough. (Which means you can ignore this.)

Kohl was in the Senate for four terms, you ask? How can you tell?

Part of me says I shouldn't be critical of Kohl for two reasons. First, he did note $25 million of the $72 million cost for the University of Wisconsin's Kohl Center, one of the premier college sports facilities in the U.S., particularly compared to the UW Fieldhouse, which had great views from the front of the upper deck and little else to recommend it.

Second, Kohl probably didn't do any damage to the country, unlike former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D–Wisconsin), whose McCain–Feingold campaign finance deform bill ushered in the era of the nasty campaign ads we all enjoyed in 2010 and violates the First Amendment. Better inaction than the wrong action, I suppose.

Having written that, Kohl was sort of the unflavored gelatin of Wisconsin politics — inoffensive for the most part, yet ineffective. I wrote in the 1990s that with Kohl's lack of noticeable accomplishment for the state and Feingold's fixation on campaign finance deform, I wondered when Wisconsin gave up the right to have U.S. senators.

When asked Friday about what he considered his greatest accomplishment in his political career, Kohl pointed to the Marinette Marine Littoral Combat Ship project. That is an important project for Marinette and Northeast Wisconsin, but (assuming the U.S. Navy buys more than one) it is not a project one would think would be on the top of the list of a senator who first arrived in Washington in 1989.

I covered the 1988 Senate race when candidates would come to Lancaster. That included exactly two Democrats, Ed Garvey (yes, this Ed Garvey), who had narrowly lost in 1986 to Republican Sen. Robert Kasten, and Secretary of State Douglas La Follette. The other Democratic candidates were former Gov. Anthony Earl, who had been upset in 1986 by then-Assembly Minority Leader Tommy Thompson, and perennial candidate Edmond Hou-Seye. Kohl did not deign to show up in Lancaster; I don't recall if Earl did.

Kohl's sole qualification for office was his millions of dollars as part of the Kohl family of Kohl's grocery stores and Kohls Corp. department stores. Kohl nonetheless won the Democratic primary with 47 percent of the vote, and then got 52 percent of the vote against Republican Susan Engeleiter in the general election.

I was assigned to write an editorial endorsing Kohl because of his business experience. That must have impressed some Republicans as well because I recall a group calling itself "Republicans for Kohl" consisting of some older male Republicans. I was not sure if they were convinced of Kohl's business experience or turned off by Engeleiter's gender.

That business experience part is one of the ironies of Kohl's career. At no point was his name attached to something remotely pro-business — that is, something that could benefit all businesses, not just business sectors in current favor such as alternative energy firms. Business tax cuts (not breaks)? Regulatory reform? Employment law reform?

His voting record (which ultimately is the only thing any politician should be judged upon) was standard Democrat, which is odd for someone who had enough money that he didn't need national Democratic support. No Democrat you've heard of ever ran against him after 1988, and he would have crushed any Democrat who did. Yet, like Feingold, Kohl listened to only Democrats back in Wisconsin, and could not be accused of being a moderate. Which is one reason why Democrats cannot be accused of being pro-business; their voting records get in the way of their rhetoric.

Kohl's future replacement was topic one on WTMJ-TV's "Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes." The big question was whether U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Janesville), who would be the instant favorite if he decided to run, will try for the Senate, which he's believed to be interested in, or if he would stay in the House of Representatives, where he theoretically has much more power as the House Budget Committee chairman. Everything on the right side will flow from whatever decision Ryan makes.

(Regardless of Ryan's decision, ponder this: Ron Johnson, whom few had heard of even a year ago, will be the senior senator from Wisconsin in January 2013.)

If not Ryan, another candidate might be Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who has won two statewide elections.

Another candidate I'm skeptical about is Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who I think isn't well known enough statewide. I don't think Assembly speakers are good candidates for higher office anyway, given the experiences of GOP speakers David Prosser and John Gard, who were collectively 0 for 3 in congressional elections — as leaders of majority parties, they tend to be controversy magnets.

Kohl's departure adds another headache for Wisconsin Democrats and their supporters, regardless of what they say. Democrats either are being or will be asked to financially back (1) Joanne Kloppenburg's quixotic quest to get elected to the Supreme Court by invalidating votes; (2) Democrats involved, on the offensive or defensive side, in state Senate recall elections; (3) President Obama's reelection efforts in this (supposedly) swing state; (4) whoever decides to run against freshman U.S. Reps. Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble; (5) efforts to retake the Legislature in 2012; and now (6) whoever runs to replace Kohl.

The obvious Democrat to run is Feingold, largely because he (and his most fervent supporters) has acted as though Feingold's birthright was taken away from him when he lost Nov. 2. Senator Left Ear was simultaneously a phony maverick and ineffective on issues that actually matter to Wisconsin voters, which is why they fired Feingold Nov. 2. His "listening sessions" were an excuse for his leftist allies to claim that government is not big enough (to which Feingold agreed on such subjects as single-payer health care). It is faint praise that no one would accuse him of being two-faced; based on those who had to deal with him, if he disagreed with you, you might as well have been talking to the door.

Assuming Feingold doesn't challenge President Obama in the Democratic primary (a persistent rumor since his loss), I have to believe Feingold will run. Almost as likely, and absolutely likely if he doesn't run, is U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D–Madison), who will be making a huge mistake if she does run because, while she can probably be elected to Congress from the People's Republic of Madison indefinitely, she is unlikely to do well in the conservative parts of the state, which will be able to find at least three reasons to not vote for her. (Her party is one, where she's from is another, and you can guess about number three.) Another name from the People's Republic is Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who has, however, already lost two statewide races — the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2002 and the attorney general race (after knocking off incumbent Peg Lautenschlager) in 2006.

The Democrat who should run but is probably 50–50 at best is U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D–La Crosse), a former Kohl aid. Kind represents the Third Congressional District, a swing district bordered by the Mississippi River. Kind, who would have been a better candidate for governor than Tom Barrett, is that rarest of things, a 2010 Democratic winner. The latter half of the 50–50 is that, like Baldwin but for different reasons, Kind would be giving up a safe Congressional seat for a not-at-all-assured result in November 2012.

The craziest suggestion I've read — which means: Go for it, Democrats! — is that someone from the Fleeing Fourteen should run. This suggestion, forwarded from The Capital Times' John Nichols, is the result of the delusion that Wisconsinites widely oppose Gov. Scott Walker's budget reforms. Had that been the case, we'd be talking about Supreme Court Justice-Elect Joanne Kloppenburg, instead of Kloppenburg the Meaningless Lawsuit Machine, and Democratic Sens. Dave Hansen, James Holperin and Robert Wirch wouldn't be facing recall elections this summer. Apparently the closer you get to Madison, the farther away you get from reality.

Johnson, interestingly, is a model for Democrats in this election. Not because of Johnson's ideology (the only reason liberals read Atlas Shrugged is so they can denigrate it), but because of Johnson's backstory. The mythology of Wisconsin politics is that we like mavericks or, in the case of Feingold, politicians who seem like mavericks though they are not. This is one of those periods (which seem more numerous than they actually are) where being an insider is a bit of a disadvantage. People regardless of ideology are disgusted by politics more by the day, and someone who seems outside the process — as Kohl was in 1988, as Feingold (who defeated two Democratic opponents who vastly outspent him) was in 1992, and as Johnson was in 2010 — is probably the ideal Democratic candidate in 2012. As Marquette University Prof. John McAdams said on WTMJ radio Friday, you don't know that person yet.

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