On Occupy Whitewater, 11.17.11

There was an Occupy Whitewater protest and rally on November 17 through this morning. Some attended a protest yesterday, a GOP counter-demonstration, a talk with three Democratic politicians, or camped over. The photograph above is from the morning of the eighteenth, with tents from those sleeping overnight occupying Whitewater.

As one could tell, from the picture and my own observations of the night before, Whitewater, Wisconsin, and America are still standing. Anyone worried about a protest like this as a particular problem has worried needlessly. If the city had a dozen more protests, left right, or center, we’d be no worse off. On the contrary, we’d be far better off.

I’ll offer remarks on both Occupy Whitewater’s agenda generally and the politicians’ speeches from last evening. Although there’s a stated connection (that it’s all part of the same event), these are really two different events. The Occupy movement has sprung up across America, but only Wisconsin has (most probably) gubernatorial and legislative recall elections still ahead. In the protests last winter and spring, the recall election this summer, and in the recall campaign now underway, Wisconsin’s situation is decidedly different from that of other places.

The speeches from Reps. Jorgenson and Barca, and Sen. Erpenbach last night were crafted with the recall campaign in mind, and so they were not typical ‘Occupy’ speeches, although they shared a few more nebulous grievances and rhetorical flourishes of that nationwide movement.

Occupy, generally. There’s a grab-bag of complaints behind the Occupy movement, although the kind term for that scattered approach is eclectic combination of serious concerns. The movement’s greatest rhetorical triumph — and here I’m being serious — has been to hit upon the idea of a contrast between 99% of Americans and another 1% of them. It’s both easier and more powerful to talk about 99% or the tiny remainder outside that majority than to offer concrete policy suggestions.

There’s the risk — already realized, I think — that those attending will too often sound like a twenty-first century re-enactment of William Jenning Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech.

About Occupy’s concern with ‘multinational’ corporations — how universal is that worry, anywhow? Most want iPods and iPads, like searching with Google, and flying to see relatives via Boeing’s latest designs. Do you think those aren’t multinational corporations?

There are, as well, the odd and unpolished rhetorical references along the way (that common people are left with ‘scraps’ while the rich eat ‘cake’). There are many suffering in America, but no one thinks that 99% of Americans are dining on scraps. The poor are a multitude as it is; their numbers need not be exaggerated. (The rhetoric is awkward, in any event – the proper contrasts are to scraps and steak, or crumbs and cake. The mixing of the contrasts reminds one of a buffet.)

The Democratic Politicians: Reps. Jorgensen and Barca, Sen. Erpenbach.

The second part of yesterday’s events comprised speeches last evening from three Democratic legislators, before an audience of about two-hundred in Hyland Hall. A few of those in attendance were Republican supporters of Gov. Walker, and some of those supporters heckled the politicians now and again. The speeches and heckling were all managed without any grievous fuss – Wisconsinites are outspoken but almost always peaceful. Whatever our views, we are not a violent people.

These legislators have Occupy on their minds, but no doubt with a clear focus on a recall, recall elections, and legislative races (Jorgensen and Barca) in November. I’ll offer a few marks on each of the three (focusing much on the style of the legislators).

Andy Jorgensen, now of the 37th Assembly District. Jorgensen hails from Fort Atkinson, and following redistricting may run for the 43rd District seat, against incumbent Evan Wynn.

Jorgensen comes to politics from an automotive labor union, I think, and listening to him one hears a speaker suited to deliver an address to working people, with energy and sincerity. One can easily imagine him speaking to workers on a floor, or at an outdoor rally. He’s an animated speaker who would likely prefer, and do better, addressing a crowd standing up, so that he could move around a bit.

For most of a campaign, where Jorgensen would be in that setting, I think he’d do well. Rep. Wynn is not that sort of speaker; he’s quieter, and better suited to a more constrained setting, as one finds at many community debates (table, candidates seated, microphones, written questions from a moderator). Wynn acquitted himself well in that setting in the last election, as he was mostly non-plussed despite some sharp barbs from then-incumbent Rep. Kim Hixson.

Debates won’t decide the 43rd’s contest, but a candidate debating Wynn will have to forgo broader flourishes, and simply and calmly paint him as out of touch. That’s an oft-noted skill that Reagan had – he would offer tough criticism (particularly when he did radio commentary before becoming president) in an even and matter-of-fact tone.

Wynn is sure to use a series of expressions in use among Tea Party activists, and a candidate opposing him should immerse himself or herself in that language, deciding in doing so what to adopt and what to reject (and in the rejecting, to reply in a pithy, epigrammatical way.)

Jorgenson’s a man who doesn’t look like he prefers wearing a suit, and that’s probably an advantage in this district, in an upcoming race. Fancy is the last thing anyone will want. Shirt and tie will be preferable to coat and tie.

Jorgensen’s best line of attack from last night — that Gov. Walker and the GOP did not run on the proposals they have now enacted. It’s a huge problem for the GOP — Gov. Walker looks sneaky to many independents and moderate Republicans, not just to die-hard Democrats.

Note to the GOP hecklers in the crowd: I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with heckling, and it was all managed well enough. Consider, though, what it means to wear a quotation from Ronald Reagan on your shirts: Reagan, completely unlike Walker, ran on his intended agenda. Reagan was entirely clear in what he wanted, and he campaigned that way. Gov. Walker may see Reagan as a model, and you may too, but there are very few people otherwise who truly think Walker is like Reagan (at any point in Reagan’s extraordinarily accomplished public career).

Rep. Peter Barca. Assembly minority leader Barca spoke briefly, and of the three incumbents to speak, he was almost professorial. He dresses that way, and has that sort of manner. He’s an effective speaker, but I doubt that he would make the most of a contrast with Gov. Walker in a race between the two. Barca is like Mayor Barrett in that regard: solid, surely, but not someone that Walker couldn’t manage in debates. (Walker’s neither a great speaker nor debater, except in this regard: he’s able to take advantage of an opponent – no matter how smart or sincere – who looks, literally looks, to represent politics as usual.)

Barca had a thoughtful, kind moment when he talked about a sign that used only Gov. Walker’s first name and mentioned that he thought protesters should call him Gov. Walker to respect the office. He’s right, of course: I might refer to Walker as Walker or Gov. Walker, but it seems inappropriate to me to call him Scott. (I wouldn’t call Pres. Obama ‘Barack,’ or Pres. Bush ‘George’ either.)

Barca wants to contend that Gov. Walker is out of step, because he’s out of step with the substantive policies of past Wisconsin administrations. There’s a risk to this (one that Sen. Erpenbach avoids). There’s procedure and substantive policy, and they’re not the same. If people are uncomfortable with Walker — and polls suggest a majority are — it’s not because he’s not a liberal Democrat and won’t endorse liberal programs. They’re uncomfortable because he seems presumptuous and disrespectful to settled tradition, procedure, and the generally conciliatory nature of Wisconsin’s political and social culture.

Walker’s greatest liability isn’t programmatic (although I think that many of his Republican programs have been wrong for liberty and individual rights), but rather that he seems a bull in this Dairyland china shop.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach. One of the ‘Fab Fourteen’ who left Wisconsin to deny the GOP a quorum, Sen. Erpenbach almost certainly will run against Gov. Walker in a recall. Whether he’ll best other Democrats I don’t know, but he would be a tough challenger for Walker. Erpenbach is a former radio personality, and he speaks smoothly, conversationally, and yet with charisma and confidence. Dressed in coat, open collar, and jeans, he matched the occasion well in style and manner.

Erpenbach’s evidently both articulate and knowledgeable, and his comfort in front of an audience will serve him well in contrast with Gov. Walker (who has not Reagan’s but rather Nixon’s skill in front of audience or camera).

Erpenbach’s biggest hit of the night — that procedurally and culturally, Gov. Walker is a radical and extreme departure from past Republicans and Democrats (and Erpenbach cleverly lists past leaders of both parties by name). This is the line that Barca would do better to embrace – that the problem isn’t simply any given policy, but the imperious behavior of the Walker Administration time and again, as a deeper and graver risk.

A discussion of tax fairness, whatever the limitations of Erhenbach’s dubious understanding of tax savings, would work to his advantage against Gov. Walker. The GOP is sure to talk about tax savings, but rather than ignore the issue, Erpenbach seeks to re-frame it.

I have no idea if — as seems likely — the recall that will go forward will have Erpenbach at its helm. He would be a formidable opponent for the governor, and would easily hold his own in debates or on the stump. (The GOP will see this, too, and one could expect that Erpenbach would be the target of third-party’s personal attacks. Erpenbach’s staff must anticipate that line of attack; his evident charisma will attract opponents’ attention.)

I hear so often that Democrats wish Feingold would run, although he won’t; they may have options just as strong, if not more so, elsewhere.

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