Before this campaign is over, Gov. Scott Walker is going to take his licks. And I don’t just mean from Democrats and Mary Burke. Walker and his campaign will earn some criticism from national conservatives for their ads focusing the spotlight on Trek’s outsourcing of jobs.
We normally associate criticism of outsourcing with Democrats, but Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is a reminder that Republicans aren't above playing the "Benedict Arnold CEO" card themselves to fan populist furies.
Behold the Walker campaign's new ad targeting the governor's Democratic challenger, Mary Burke: "Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your fortune grow? By making millions of dollars . . . Sending jobs overseas that could have been done in Wisconsin . . . To countries where women and children might work up to 12 hours a day, earning only two dollars an hour." Ms. Burke is a former executive of the Wisconsin-based Trek, which like its competitors Cannondale, Schwinn and Giant manufactures most of its bikes in China or Taiwan.
Economic populism is usually the province of Democrats who don't understand how free markets work or who cynically hope to exploit voters' insecurities. Mr. Walker is better than that.
Playing the populist card is a dangerous gambit for Walker. It’s one thing to try and harness anger (which exists on both the left and the right) toward big banks on Wall Street that blew up the economy and then got bailed out with taxpayer money, or to rail against the rampant crony capitalist culture of Washington D.C. It’s something else to bash one of the most well-known, well-liked companies in your state with the aforementioned all-American success story.
Walker’s attack is also risky because it’s so blatantly cynical. It’s so obviously out of step with core Republican beliefs it’s impossible to think Walker actually even believes his own ad. Would he be pushing such a dubious argument if he were up 10 points in the polls? Obviously not.
Which leads us to the last observation about his attack: It smacks of desperation.
So what’s going on here? Is Walker and his campaign just being cynical and looking for the easiest path to sour the image of Mary Burke?
A couple things are at work here that either haven’t been adequately explained by the ads and probably haven’t been understood by national observers.
1. ) The Charge is Hypocrisy, Not Outsourcing - The Trek ads are meant to paint Democrat Mary Burke as a hypocrite. But an argument can be made that this has been done in a clumsy fashion that makes it look like the Walker team is simply accusing Trek of outsourcing jobs.
Mary Burke has centered her campaign around her experience as a Trek executive and has since put forth an economic plan that calls for in-sourcing and hiking the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. What the Walker ads are attempting to educate the voting public on is the fact that Burke advocates for the very policies that make companies like Trek seek to move manufacturing overseas.
2.) These Ads Are Defining Burke Before She Can Define Herself - The most recent Marquette poll found that nearly half of respondents couldn’t give an opinion about Mary Burke one way or another - an astounding feat for a candidate who has been campaigning since October and is tied in the polls. The Trek ads are about providing a counter-narrative to her resume. Mary Burke brought Trek into the campaign, prominently featuring them in ads. The Walker team is responding in-kind. While voters have largely made up their minds about Scott Walker, the race is on to influence what voters think about Mary Burke. Will voters see an outsider with business experience? Or another liberal who talks one way but acted another? That’s the issue.
One thing I think both the Wall Street Journal and Real Clear Politics are right about is the risk involved in this line of attack. Trek is a popular company and there is inherent peril in a pro-business governor playing the outsourcing charge. If this attempt to define Mary Burke is to be successful, it must emphasize the hypocrisy and the credibility issues it raises about Mary Burke, not whether Gov. Walker is attacking a Wisconsin company.