One nice thing about traveling for a living is that you're out there among 'em and can see what others in diverse communities think, compared to your own. That's true of institutions, not just individuals. I was moving around upstate Wisconsin for a few days this past week and had a chance to scan local newspapers and monitor local radio and TV, gathering up a sense of how the recall election outcome is being portrayed. Mostly, if you're progressive, it wasn't pretty.
The only truly positive headline I saw in the daily newspapers of several communities I visited was the page one banner in Wednesday's Wausau Herald, which proclaimed in big type that Democrats had won two state Senate seats. That, however, was a real aberration in a political climate where some columnists already have gone so far as to suggest the Wisconsin recall election outcome means progressives in the Badger state and maybe nationwide are toast, while conservatives rule supreme. The somewhat more common spin (as in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) was that Republicans had retained control of the Senate, fighting off Democratic recall challenges.
Then there was Scott Bauer of the Associated Press. Bauer failed whatsoever to note that Wisconsin Democrats took two of six seats from incumbent Republicans until the tenth paragraph of his Wednesday morning roundup. That, among journalists, is called burying the lead.
Indeed, if you only read to the bottom of page one in newspapers that carried Bauer's account, and if you'd been asleep for the past few months, you'd have been misled into thinking there were only four races in total and that the GOP won all of them. You'd also have been misled into thinking only out-of-state labor unions spent huge sums of money on the elections, when Democratic supporters of all kinds once again appear to have been outspent by shadowy outside conservative interest groups who didn't have to report who their contributers were -- about which Bauer wrote not a word.
Worse, the first few 'graphs of Bauer's story made it sound like Republicans had just crossed the Delaware River and unleashed a new American revolution or something. Read along:
MADISON -- Republicans held onto control of the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday, beating back four Democratic challengers in a recall election despite an intense political backlash against GOP support for Gov. Scott Walker's effort to curb public employees' union rights.
Fueled by millions of dollars from national labor groups, the attempt to remove GOP incumbents served as both a referendum on Walker's conservative revolution and could provide a new gauge of the public mood less than a year after Republicans made sweeping gains in this state and many others.
Two Democratic incumbents face recalls next week, but even if Democrats win those they will still be in the minority... .
Then, seven paragraphs later, Bauer gets around to the rest of the news, and the missing lead:
Also winning on Tuesday was Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke, who had been in the Senate since 2004. The other Republican ousted was first-term incumbent Sen. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac, defeated by Democrat Jessica King, the former deputy mayor of Oshkosh.
Yup, that's in the tenth paragraph. Which contained what journalism veterans would describe as this news story's "man bites dog" moment -- it described the most interesting and newsworthy development on Aug. 9: that Democrats had taken two Senate seats in GOP-held districts. Nowhere in the story was it mentioned that other Democrats had come close in a couple of the other races.
Plus, it took days for the AP and other news organizations to point out what was noted almost immediately on political blogs: That the GOP's two losses -- coupled with two incumbent Democratic senators holding on in their own recalls Aug. 16 -- likely would mean a far more decisive role for moderate GOP senators such as Dale Schultz (who voted against the union busting bill). Meaning, in turn, that Scott Walker's far-right juggernaut would drop its transmission and grind to a halt.
Indeed, Walker made that tacit admission the day after the election when the reactionary, ultraconservative governor who up until now has been all "my way or the highway" suddenly called for more bipartisanship. Gee, now that he's done implementing his blitzkrieg campaign to gut union bargaining rights, help install right-wing morons in more elective offices and wreck school and city budgets, NOW he's suddenly for the other side compromising!?
That's already going to happen thanks to Tuesday. Not because of anything Walker's said or done to enable it, but because of strenuous and successful efforts by legions of upset Wisconsin citizens who worked as volunteers on the recall campaigns and got better results than ever before in history. You know, those people whom Republicans have busily caricatured as consisting entirely of outsiders controlled by "Obama's union bosses." A greater case of psychological projection we probably can't find.
Still, progressives in some cases insist upon regarding the political landscape as a glass half empty rather than one that's half full. In any number of lefty blog posts here and elsewhere, we are advised that the progressive cause "lost" last Tuesday, and that Republicans won. Unfortunately, that was exactly the message being put out by Republicans in Wisconsin on up to the GOP national committee. Aiding and abetting the enemy? What's the point and purpose of that? Remember what Bluto Blutarsky said in the movie "Animal House": This could be the greatest night of our lives, but you're gonna let it be the worst!
It's fine not to be wholly satisfied with Tuesday's Wisconsin result -- in fact, progressives should use that dissatisfaction to press on to greater victories. But it's not at all helpful to speak as if progressives didn't accomplish anything at all. Far from it, which even the AP and other mainstream outlets only belatedly are beginning to suggest.
Buying into what is precisely the Republican spin on all this simply isn't going to be very enabling or useful -- starting with Tuesday's second round of Wisconsin recall elections in which Democraic senators Jim Holperin and Bob Wirch need all hands on deck to turn back a crackpot teabagger and an empty-suit Chicago lawyer.
Clearly, Tuesday's outcome in Wisconsin wasn't everything that the Democrats nd their allies hoped it would be, but it certainly wasn't anything at all like what Republicans wanted. And yet it's the Republicans and their journalist/pundit enablers who are busy telling the world -- directly or by implication -- that the anti-Walker, progressive, pro-labor movement in Wisconsin is now dashed and that it isn't going to succeed as a model used elsewhere. Bull hockey.