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Why Clinton Has Already Lost Wisconsin

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The desultory, divided, and demoralized state Democratic party held its annual convention over the past weekend in Green Bay, home of the Packers. Bernie Sanders had won the state handily, and the Superdelegates went right along with the Clinton team anyway.  Why would they concern themselves with the popular vote, the mass rallies, and the contrast to Hillary’s appearance in small venues or (in Madison) by-invitation-only events?

You might well ask, and perhaps they did ask themselves, a little, when voting for a nonbinding resolution relating to….the national party and 2020. Several state parties have come to a consensus decision to abolish the Superdelegate system, bowing to popular will and good sense. Not in Wisconsin. This feeble effort to reach out to the enthusiasm of Sanders supporters, following months of editorials in the media demanding that Bernie concede for the good of the party, the nation and the world, would be seen for what it was, a sop and not even a real sop, but a psychological bribe.

Now we need to step back and look at the Wisconsin Democratic Party, mirrored but with different details across large swaths of America between the coasts. It may be enough to recall that Bob LaFollette and his Progressive Party held up the banner of reform through much of the first half of the twentieth century. The Democratic machine, weak and corrupt, inched forward with the New Deal (following the path of the Progressives) but moved more definitively with the Cold War, as in neighboring Minnesota. A handful of leading personalities, most of all Earth Day founder and environmentalist supreme, Gaylord Nelson, built a state political machine around themselves, even as Truman Democrats raked in the cash of the growing military-industrial economy.

The machine showed cracks in the Vietnam days, when even those Democratic leaders who insisted the war had been a bad idea nevertheless cursed the campus antiwar movement and demonstrations at large. (The state’s leading liberal paper, Madison’s Capital Times, editorially insisted that the Russians had tricked the US into a land war in Asia, with the Vietnamese themselves mere  hapless bystanders.) The cracks grew larger as many erstwhile young Democratic idealists abandoned McGovernism for something that paid better. Case in point: Les Aspin, one of those erstwhile antiwar idealists, became Secretary of Defense under Clinton, after decades of boosting arms production in his home district. His vigorous support of the Nicaraguan Contras had put him on a track with the New Democrats.

The cracks grew still larger, almost to the breaking point, when industries fled, with the support of nearly all of the leading Democratic politicians for NAFTA and similar trade deals (some pleaded later that they had wanted soft landing provisions such as job retraining, but didn’t get these). Popular Republican governor Tommy Thompson swept the state, nearly outbidding Democrats with his support for the far-flung university system, meanwhile taking cues from the Koch Brothers (or was it Bill Clinton?) on privatization.

The once-strong rural vote for Democrats had vanished with the generations and the large numbers of family farms. The Democrats could still win national-office elections, thanks to the heavy voting in Milwaukee, Dane County (Madison), LaCrosse and “up north,” the old radical center of Superior. Promising eco-zones in the Southwest and North, nearby the Indian reservations, also seemed to hold a progressive future. But the last generation of Democratic governors had committed themselves to holding on to the fleeing industries through hefty subsidies (they left anyway), and otherwise chose the course of their money backers, including mega-farm developers.

Then came the 2010 election and the redistricting that followed, shutting Democrats further out of the system for at least a decade. A goad to turn leftward toward the new generation suffering debts and job problems unknown to predecessors? Not really, or only in rhetoric. The Democrats got themselves together at presidential election time, and made a brief, strong stand during the Wisconsin Uprising of  2011-12….marred by a leadership demand that the often massive demonstrations against Governor Scott Walker cease, so as to focus protest exclusively on elections. The rightward movement in state politics, meanwhile, including women’s rights, ecology, labor relations and even road repair can hardly be exaggerated. But Democratic opposition, if rhetorically loud, has always seemed somehow half-hearted, a small handful of admirable legislators surrounded by those whose real aspiration was simply to retake control, with all of its benefits.

The national party didn’t help much, and sometimes did the opposite. Back in the 1990s, the Democratic Leadership Committee had insisted that only one platform, their platform, was acceptable and offered precious little money for those who had their own, anti-NAFTA views.  Russ Feingold, son of a Progressive Party activist and a dedicated peacenik and civil libertarian, was meanwhile regarded with contempt by the successor Democratic National Committee, his defeat in 2010 quietly welcomed in some hawkish Clintonesque quarters. Happily, Wisconsin also had the first openly lesbian Senator, Tammy Baldwin, not so happily drifting rightward, from the peaceniks in the party toward the hawks, during the course of the Obama administration (more to the point:  following Clinton’s State Department lead).

And here we are in 2016. By anecdotal evidence, Wisconsin’s veterans turned away in 2008 from Senator John McCain (who many regarded in his Vietnam days as less a hero than a notorious hot dog, endangering others around him), sickened by the effects of the Iraq War upon the men and women in the military. The same veterans have faithfully supported Tammy Baldwin…so far. Like their counterparts nationally who follow Congressional careers, they view Bernie Sanders as their real representative, and Clinton no friend or ally.

It’s not hard to see the outcome here in November, on the premise that Clinton successfully takes (or steals) the nomination. Every editorialist is poised to blame Bernie supporters, after a campaign slog in which Hillary speaks as much about Trump as possible and as little as possible about her war, race and corporate economic record.

Barring an indictment that might sweep her away for Sanders (or possibly, Biden), the verdict of statewide disaster is in, and despite a lot of forced smiles, the state Democratic Party knows it. A columnist for the business-and-philanthropy Madison magazine has proposed that the state Democratic Party dissolve and begin over, bringing in fresh blood and leadership. Fat chance: the power people in New York and Wall Street, with the money to hand out for state elections, are Hillary all the way.  How to save the down ticket, what can be saved, between the presidential race at the top and local elections at the bottom?  They ponder, and so do we.

More articles by:

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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