Rebuilding the Democratic Party: Hope vs. fear

By Bill Kaplan


November 4 was a wave election throughout the nation, with a Tea Party-led GOP successfully nationalizing campaign themes. Anxiety, fear, and scapegoating undergirded GOP campaigns. A Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll showed "that the public followed Ebola in the U.S. more than any other story...much more closely than the midterm elections." There was a political drumbeat on Ebola, with GOP Gov. Scott Walker and other GOP politicians politicizing a miniscule threat to Wisconsin. 

And, our "divide and conquer" gov. ran hard against Madison and Milwaukee, with coded campaigning exacerbating the rural, suburban and urban divide while pandering to prejudices. In the final days Walker sank to the politics of personal destruction, i.e., outright lies that businesswoman Mary Burke had been fired by her father. It worked. What to do? 

The road ahead is uphill. But nothing is permanent. The late Democratic Sen. Bill Proxmire lost three gubernatorial elections before winning a U.S. Senate seat. However, magic wand solutions such as sacking Mike Tate from leadership of the state Democratic Party or looking for Mary Burke's shortcomings are simpleminded. Instead, I want to suggest how to strengthen and rebuild the state Democratic Party. 

Issues Commission 

Wisconsin, like the nation, faces long-term threats to the American Dream of well-paying jobs and a middle class standard of living. Automation, deindustrialization and globalization, compounded by unfair one-sided trade deals, are pushing more and more of us over the cliff. "Invisible hands" - Wall Street banks, multinational corporations and plutocrats - are dominant. We need an economic message that responds to the middle class and working people: job creation / economic security, strengthening families, reduction of educational and medical debt and retirement security. An issues commission comprised of university economists, state legislators and representatives from business and labor is needed to come up with a modern Wisconsin Idea program. 

Party Building Commission 

The late Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson taught me that the state Democratic Party has to represent the entire state to win and govern successfully. It will never be enough just to appeal to Madison and Milwaukee. Wisconsinites need to understand the economic importance of different parts of the state. For example, Milwaukee is home to international headquarters of six Fortune 500 companies; the city's diversity is a bridge to the world. And, despite serious social problems its downtown has been revitalized. Similarly, rural Wisconsin farms are a huge part of the state's economy and identity. And, multiple suburbs are high tech centers. We all need each other. A party building commission of political experts must come up with a strategy to make our party a state-wide force with maximum participation. 

I also urge the state party to ask former Democratic Rep. Dave Obey to be designated as counselor to the Wisconsin Democratic Party, overseeing both the development of a more comprehensive economic message and party building strategy. No Democrat knows the state as well as Obey or has the affection and respect of as many Wisconsinites. 

 -- Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C. for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995-2009.

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