Mike Tate, Chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, must have choked on his arugula last Wednesday when Governor Doyle told the world he was having second thoughts about retiring. Did anyone hear support for our governor’s second thoughts? No. Doyle’s decision not to run has sunk in with both pale and dark blue Democrats be they union organizers or limousine liberals. It took them about five minutes to realize the damage Doyle had done to the Democratic brand in Wisconsin.
True, Doyle never lost an election. Also true, however, is that he never had coattails and frankly, never saw himself as the standard bearer for the party. He is a politician whose passion seems to be looking out for number one. Whereas Tommy Thompson was known for trumpeting, “Isn’t it great to be a Republican,” Doyle never returned the favor for Democrats.
In fact, he has damaged his party’s image. Let’s look at his accomplishments. Doyle supporters would put expansion of health insurance high on the list. True, for the blue-blooded Democrats, expanding health care coverage to women and children seems like a winning issue. But timing is everything and Doyle’s health care expansion has been swallowed up by the national blather over health care.
Getting accolades for BadgerCare Plus, well you might as well be yelling into a closet. Oh and by the way, look for candidates for governor to point out the price tag for Doyle’s expansion. In a climate defined by taxes and jobs, expensive new government programs are not winners.
Governor Doyle also will be remembered as the father of the Wisconsin Covenant. Yet, the truth is that this potentially interesting initiative never got off the ground. Under Doyle’s leadership funding remained a mystery and there was little by way of follow through. To most observers, the Wisconsin Covenant feels like the shallow, campaign-focused ideas we’ve come to expect out of Madison.
Doyle the education governor also rings hollow. Is he a champion of the status quo or a reformer? The answer is a clear yes. He was bludgeoned into reversing field and supporting Milwaukee’s school choice program, albeit while holding his nose. And how about mayoral takeover of MPS? This one left those on both the left and the right scratching their heads. It took him seven years to discover that something dramatic needed doing in Milwaukee schools? Why the sudden epiphany? And why throw the weight of the Governor’s Office behind it just two days before announcing he was riding into the sunset? His passion for education reform is as inspirational as Bernanke’s testimony before the Senate Finance Committee.
But he handled the budget in tough times, some will say. Well, that is certainly debatable given the mammoth $2 billion-plus budget hole he is passing on to his successor. But suppose we do cut him some slack and recognize that his tenure as governor was bookended by recessions. Fine, but even if one believes in Governor Doyle’s fiscal wizardry, delivering balanced budgets is not the stuff of legacies.
I was fortunate to spend some time with former Governor Lucey last week and I couldn’t help but reflect on the enduring stamp he put on Wisconsin and especially state government. Nowhere in Governor Lucey’s legacy will historians write about balancing the budget. That’s not what great governors are known for. Yet that is ostensibly one of Doyle’s crowning accomplishments.
Clearly, Governor Doyle’s legacy is lackluster. Equally clear is that his popularity is weak. While the Democratic brand is supposedly in ascendency – see Obama’s 57% approval in WPRI polling – the public has separated their feelings about Doyle from their feelings about other Democrats. While 52% of the public disapprove of the job he is doing as governor, only 43% think he was doing a good job. Or deeper in the poll, we find that only 13% of the public think that state government made Wisconsin’s economy better in the past year. Wow. And 46% think state government made the economy worse, an impression that sticks like Velcro to a governor.
So regardless of whom Mike Tate and company find to run as a Democrat for governor, that person will be running as fast as they can away from Doyle. Of course, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of linking the candidate to the incumbent, much like the strategy Democrats used in recapturing the White House a year ago. Has Governor Doyle grasped the distance Democrats are putting between themselves and their governor? Apparently so, since last week he announced that the $2 million in his campaign fund will be going to candidates who support his causes. This smacks of the fellow who tied the pork chop around his neck to ensure that at least the dog would play with him.
-October 26, 2009