Bill Clinton, of all people, provided the best explanation for why his fellow Democrats failed so miserably in their epic effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker from the office he won just 19 months ago. “They see cooperation works,” the former president declared of Wisconsin voters. “Constant conflict is a dead-bang loser.”
Actually, Slick Willy delivered those insightful comments the night before the recall election, in a big Milwaukee rally meant to energize the faithful for the dump-Walker cause. He echoed the line used by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate to replace Walker, who claimed in the last days of the campaign that the Republican governor had waged an unnecessary “civil war” in Madison and that the only way to put an end to the tiresome conflict would be to put an end to Walker’s rule.
Ultimately, the voters shared the same disgust with the ceaseless bile and bickering, but blamed the state’s Democrats more than the Republicans. After all, it was the Democrats in the state Senate who fled their posts for self-imposed exile in an Illinois motel to avoid votes they knew they would lose, and it was the labor unions that dispatched tens of thousands of angry demonstrators to disrupt business in the state capitol. The left had already conducted one unsuccessful recall campaign aimed at regaining control of the state Senate, and generated unprecedented levels of apocalyptic rage to mobilize their forces against the new governor.
The hysteria clearly backfired in a state where the economic recovery looked credible and even durable, with an unemployment rate well below the national average. The reluctance of Wisconsin voters to take radical steps to change direction led to the same electorate that gave Walker his 7-point margin telling exit pollsters that they preferred to retain Barack Obama by a similar margin.
While gleeful Republicans may yearn to claim a sweeping ideological endorsement for Walker’s bold fiscal management and courageous challenges to union power, they should avoid reading too much into the Wisconsin results.
The returns actually express a timeless lesson that the most successful practicing politicos already understand: that anger is often overrated as a weapon in the electoral arsenal. In major elections, if one contender comes across as undeniably more indignant and enraged than his opponent, then that candidate will almost always lose. Even in hard times, the American people prefer the sunnier, more even-tempered option—hence the singular success of Happy Warriors like FDR and Ronald Reagan, who beat more dour opponents in some of the darkest days of 20th-century history.
Barack Obama has been losing ground in recent weeks because he’s seemed more nasty, out-of-sorts, and hyperpartisan than the unflappable and unfailingly restrained Romney. Some conservative commentators worry that Mitt’s too mild—so dull and polite that he’ll never conduct the slashing fight that alone can unseat an incumbent. Actually, it’s not a bad thing for a challenger to seem boring, bland and reassuring; it’s easily preferable (and far more presidential) than an aura of edgy, unpredictable fury, especially when the sitting president begins to display those uncomfortable qualities.
Blazing anger can bring big turnouts for mass public protests, or build formidable ratings for political talk shows, or even (as Rick Santorum demonstrated) win an occasional primary election. But when it comes to fateful, high-turnout general elections like the Wisconsin recall, the Democratic sage known as Slick Willy made precisely the right call: “Constant conflict is a dead-bang loser.”