It’s time for a little tough love for Team Walker.
It is an understatement to say last week was not their best week of their administration. They started the week by looking evasive and guilty on national TV, and by the end of it they looked heartless and desperate firing Department of Transportation lawyer John Schulze in a panic over a 15-year old satirical news release sent to friends using his personal e-mail.
The most disturbing thing about this week’s events, however, is what it exposed about the inability of Team Walker to manage a crisis. Mind you, this current episode will be a long forgotten memory by Election Day. It is not, however, the last or likely the most serious crisis the Governor’s campaign will face. Unless they improve their ability to effectively handle a bad story it could have politically fatal consequences this November for a Governor with a disturbingly small electoral cushion to fall back on.
So, after the week that was, let’s act like a good football team and go to the film room to see what went wrong and what can be learned from it.
1. Beware of hubris. Governor Walker is an extremely disciplined and articulate messenger, but that does not mean he should always be the messenger. Going on national TV with Chris Wallace within days of the Rindfleisch e-mail dump was a choice.
And it was a very bad choice. Wallace is not some fawning Huckleberry from the Waukesha Freeman. He’s going to ask tough questions and he’s not going to let you get away with non-answers. Taking this interview was pure hubris. The Governor apparently believed he could spin his way out of this jam and get the national TV jump on Chris Christie who was taking a more cautious course by taking a pass on the Sunday morning talk show circuit. As talented a media presence as Governor Walker is, he still needs to learn that there are times and circumstances in which "you say it best when you say nothing at all."
2. Don’t be a prosthesis. If a story does not have legs of its own, don’t give it artificial ones. The e-mail dump was a lame story. National press yawned. Locals obsessed over it with a voyeuristic fascination but the story line with regard to Governor Walker himself was weak at best and petering out. The Governor’s evasive performance on national TV and his panic firing of John Schulze gave the story new legs, new angles, and new vigor it never could have sustained on its own.
3. Don’t adopt an orphan problem. John Schulze was a staff lawyer in the bowels of an administrative agency – the Department of Transportation. Schulze was not working for Walker 15 years ago when he penned his satirical release, he was not working for Walker when he re-sent it 4 years ago, and he was not working in the Governor’s office when the e-mail came to light last week. So why did Governor Walker feel the need to take ownership of this problem? Is the governor really going to feel the responsibility to micromanage every personnel decision concerning any at-will employee in the bowels of the bureaucracy, no matter how obscure?
If this was a legitimate personnel matter at all, it should have been a matter between Schulze and the Department of Transportation Secretary for whom he worked. Instead, he made the scandal his own.
4. Don’t empower your enemies. Conservatives love to complain about the liberal media and how unfair they are. However, what Team Walker did and how they did it this week actually empowers the very media they hate so much. If Dan Bice, Patrick Marley, and the Daily Kos could rant and rave all they want and Walker didn't flip out and fire people, the media tail would eventually realize that they cannot wag the dog. The Rindfleisch e-mails and the reporting around them was all gotcha and gossip. The administration needs to be grown up enough to ignore it rather than validate it by overreaction.
The media loves the myth of its own power. They all dream of the bygone eras of Citizen Kane or the Washington Post circa 1972. They love to think their endorsements are kingmakers. They love stories that cause alar or plastic baby toys to be banned. They love it when politicians overreact to a story by holding legislative hearings. And above all, they love it when they can get someone fired. It plays to their vanity and demonstrates a clout they wish they still consistently had. The reason they don't go after the Democrats in the same way as Republicans is partially bias, but it is also partially conditioning. They know they can get Republicans – even media savvy Republicans like Scott Walker - to panic and start tossing people under the bus.
Republicans are almost pathological in our neediness. Despite the fact that the paper is read by fewer and fewer folks every day, we consistently overreact to any criticism the mainstream media gives.and act like every swing voter in the state starts their day by checking in with the Journal Sentinel for their marching orders. That empowers and emboldens the media to attack us more aggressively and more often. We become the architects of our own destruction.
By contrast, the media knows that the left will usually ride out and shrug off their criticism. They know Graeme Zielinski isn't going to apologize, isn't going to quit, and isn't going away - so what's the fun of pounding on him for blatantly racist attacks on Sheriff Clarke?
They know Chris Abele doesn't need them so why bother pointing out his unpaid parking tickets? They know they are not going to push John "Sly" Sylvester off the air despite the fact that he has repeatedly made comments that make the Schulze e-mail seem like the invocation at a ladies’ society tea. Aggressively going after these targets and being ignored would only serve to remind the dead tree of its own irrelevance.
Consider again the firing of John Schulze. Walker flack Tom Evenson responded to the controversy with the sweeping statement that, "There is no room for this poor conduct in Governor Walker’s administration." The minute that statement was made, Evenson effectively empowered folks like Dan Bice to be in charge of personnel decisions for the entire Walker administration going forward.
If Schulze’s 15-year old personal e-mail is grounds for his firing, Walker's top aide should hope Bice never gets ahold of any Gmail from him to friends suggesting that the Packers played like "pansies" against the 49ers.
I’ve got news for young Tom Evenson: State government is full of peculiar people into all manner of positively freaky things on their personal time and their personal e-mails. If, "there is no room for that sort of conduct in the Walker administration," you all better pack a lunch because you’ve got a LOT of folks to fire. You might also want to post a sign now advising, "Will the last person to leave the Walker administration please turn out the lights?"
Last week was a rough week, and I know this is a rough column that will offend some in Team Walker. But these things need to be said. Scott Walker has been a transformational figure for Wisconsin. He has turned this state around more quickly and more dramatically than most of us would have ever dreamed possible. He has become a national symbol of hope and inspiration for conservatives. A Walker defeat this fall would have disastrous consequences both for Wisconsin and the nation. The stakes are too high for all this to be put at risk by an election-season reprise of the past week’s crisis management amateur hour.
(Note: the Conservative Consigliere is a highly opinionated political insider who will be contributing his unvarnished insights from time to time.)