Kathleen Vinehout Is Too Good of a Democrat to Beat Mary Burke

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 9.27.07 PM

Whether Kathleen Vinehout runs against Mary Burke in the governors’ race is largely irrelevant. Her candidacy would be interesting and a bit disruptive, but Mary Burke has the money, and as Mike on MSNBC taught us last year, money wins elections. But let’s take a look at the matchup anyway.

The pair will have to spar over something, likely drawing lines between their credentials to seek the office and qualifications to execute its duties, not quibbling over policy. In the 2012 Democratic recall primary, she barely registered against Tom Barrett and Kathleen Falk, pulling in 4% of votes. In reviewing the debate from that race, she comes off as endearing and forthright, but also as severely lacking the political chutzpah to effectively beat an opponent in a statewide race. (To put the debate in perspective and save you the hour, Mr. Barrett is the one who shines as a master of rhetoric compared to his opponents.) Up against Obama campaign alums and a Ms. Burke’s personal campaign warchest, Ms. Vinehout will be demolished. Pragmatism and common sense solutions are rubber band guns compared to the bazooka of adept political theater, a subject in which Ms. Burke is surely being coached.

These candidates both flaunt pro-business perspectives, more so than other Democrats, since they’ve actually participated in enterprises that must make money; Ms. Vinehout is a farmer and her opponent sells bikes. Both appear to agree in principle that the community thrives when government and industry enter into a partnership: Prosperity derives from the function of investing in human potential and infrastructure (which every Democrat says when they mean “spending”), then reducing the regulations and policies that impede economic growth — but only so that no one has too much more than anyone else.

In a Vinehout Administration, the government would be lean, robust, streamlined and efficient. One of its roles would be to provide small businesses, farmers and entrepreneurs with access to low-cost health care through a state-operated exchange. Her administration would also overhaul Medicaid, bringing oversight to what she describes as a fairly unguarded arm of the government. When asked to provide an unbreakable campaign promise, Ms. Vinehout pledged to change the way the state government operates, that she would focus on the minutiae of bureaucracy and details and administering services. Most importantly, dollars would be attached to results. Her vision for state government mirrors that of a successful business. It’s how government should be run.

Meanwhile, a Vinehout Administration would also cater to state employee unions. “Collective bargaining is part of a well-run state government. It’s something that I strongly support,” she said, adding that it has widespread support across the state. Had she been able to see the future, she’d know there wasn’t enough to remove Mr. Walker from office. This is an impossible balance; the muscle and protection of unions necessarily cause inefficiencies. Ms. Vinehout will be able to portray Ms. Burke as anti-union solely based on the policies at Trek. From here will derive a possible point of contention, and define segments of the general election, especially whether Act 10 and its results ultimately helped or hurt the state.

Ms. Vinehout appeared at her weakest in the 2012 debate when describing her leadership style. When asked about birding the partisan gap, Vinehout declared, “We need a new way to govern.” Excuse for a moment the asinine pretense that four people who were running against a man because they didn’t like his economic policy were asked about bipartisanship — one of whom, Ms. Vinehout, escaped the state to Illinois to avoid casting a vote. She would be the Role Model In Chief, essentially, setting the tone from the very top and asking everyone else to follow suit and play together nicely. The pillars of her leadership doctrine include “restoring traditional values,” “calm rhetoric,” “avoid personal attacks,” that she “won’t drop bombs” and “won’t fasttrack legislation.” She concluded, “Speed, secrecy and arm twisting always end in controversy and division.” Perhaps that’s why she’s not susceptible to any pressure applied by the state Democrats not to run.

If a Democrat primary is inevitable, the face-off would be an effective way for Ms. Burke to show a badass business side, with an edge that Ms. Vinehout needs to demonstrate. Though Ms. Burke’s “let’s get Wisconsin going again” screed is misguided, it’s politically effective. Ms. Vinehout lacks the necessary skills to win the perception battle. The states problems can be solved by her, as the High Priestess and Arbiter of Beneficence and Dogoodery. To conclude the debate, she said, “We need a new way of governing: A way that’s based on the recognition that we are a single community with a common interest.” It sounds too Kum Ba Yah to actually reach people.

Meanwhile, Ms. Burke ties her apparent business savvy into a policy of bringing together great minds to find common solutions to the state’s problems. Her plan doesn’t focus on herself, but rather the teams she would install within the Capitol to advise her.

In a lot of ways, Ms. Vinehout’s character mirrors the idealistic Tea Party candidates who primaries Republicans in 2010 and 2012, bringing a lot of enthusiasm and emotion and willingness to change, but none of the public relations prowess and political strategy to effectively win. It’s possible the grandeur of the governor’s mansion has stayed on Ms. Vinehout’s mind. Parts of her website still include discussion of what her would-be administration as governor would look like. Even before the recall effort, Ms. Vinehout was one of the Democrats who voted in favor of Wisconsin’s concealed carry law, a measure she supported, she writes, because,

Forty-eight other states already had a conceal and carry law without any noticeable detrimental effect. The proposed Wisconsin law was amended to include training requirements requested by law enforcement. Without any compelling factual reason to vote against the bill, I responded to the large majority of my constituents who asked me to vote for it.

Such a vote could be political pandering to extend her reach beyond the Democrat base, or it could be an elected representative doing her job and voicing the will of her constituents. My guess is her vote on concealed carry hinged on the latter.

Wisconsin will never know if Ms. Vinehout could be a change agent within the Capitol — not until she sharpens her teeth and refines her message, and becomes the practitioner of the type politics she seems so dearly to disdain.

About the writer: Nik Nelson is publisher of MorningMartini.com and Founder/CEO of OpenBox Strategies, where he connects political candidates and small businesses with excellent digital marketing tools and strategies.