What Progressives Learned From the Wisconsin Recall

Activists from across the country lack enthusiasm for Barack Obama, but are strongly anti-GOP.

Editorial Cartoon

Last week, I attended Netroots Nation 2012 convention in Providence, R.I. to talk with other progressives about the road forward from Wisconsin. I learned a lot at the conference, which began the day after the defeat in Wisconsin.

The progressive activists I spoke to at the event were disappointed but grimly determined to fight on.

Much of the debate at the conference was about the need to overturn Citizens United. In the case, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people and have the same constitutional rights as individual citizens. Thomas Jefferson must have been spinning in his grave on the day of the decision.

Corporate citizenship is a novel interpretation of the Constitution which is shared only by Mitt Romney, five Supreme Court justices, and a few legal scholars on the Federalist Society payroll. I'll only come around when I see BP doing hard time in the Louisiana state prison Angola for destroying the economy and environment of the Gulf Coast area.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

In Wisconsin, money talked and democracy walked. We lost but learned a lot. Progressives can't compete with the tsunami of TV ads unleashed by the Koch brothers and Karl Rove. We have to spend smarter and find low cost ways to get our message across to voters.

I think there's more to it, but it's tempting to dismiss the defeat in Wisconsin to money alone. Republican Gov. Scott Walker spent $31 million to survive the recall while the Democratic candidate Tom Barrett spent $5 million. That was bad enough, but outside conservative groups who favored Walker outspent the unions who supported Barrett.

The corporate conservative financial muscle demonstrated in Wisconsin could signal big problems for Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives in November. The GOP's financial muscle may not be a problem in presidential race but could be a big problem in races for the House where big money is important because voters know so little about the candidates. Karl Rove's group, American Crossroads, has already purchased millions of dollars of time for TV ads in markets where there will be tight House races.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

There was very little mention or enthusiasm about Barack Obama at the convention. The president was the elephant in the room that the guests didn't want to discuss. The people in Providence see the president as a mainstream moderate. Republicans describe the president as a "socialist." I recently saw a bumper sticker that read "Democrat is just another name for Communist." The citizens of Netroots Nation find both sentiments absurd.

There was, however, a lot of anti-GOP rhetoric at the meeting. The conference was the bizarro converse version of the atmosphere at a convention of Christian conservatives where there is little enthusiasm for Romney but lots of hatred of Barack Obama. In a very close election with few undecided voters, the outcome may hinge on which of these disaffected groups turns out in force in November.

The most encouraging thing about the gathering was the energy of the participants. The crowd in Providence was much younger than the folks I will see at the Democratic National Convention in September. They are the great hope for the progressive movement and the Democratic Party. Fox News dominates cable TV but Netroots Nation is kicking butt on social media. These kids have given up on the traditional media as too cautious or too conservative so they are paving the way to a future when most Americans get political information on the web. Just wait and see.

  • Even Jeb Bush Decries Today's Extreme Partisanship
  • Follow the Thomas Jefferson Street blog on Twitter at @TJSBlog.
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy