The Mary Burke Non-Centrist Democrat/Moderate Kinda Political No-Promises Unity-Tour Campaign of 2014

We might not know Mary Burke’s jobs plan for the state of Wisconsin, but we do know how Gov. Scott Walker plans on beating her.

He’ll beat her up with her own credentials — a history of job creation juxtaposed with Trek’s out-of-state job outsourcing, a no-promises campaign against his own bold campaign promises, a stint as Commerce Secretary that ended with more jobs in 2007 than the state has now against consistent job growth and a falling unemployment rate.

In a Clintonian game of lexical gymnastics, we’ll have a debate about what the meaning of “jobs” is, mincing the values of short-term and long-term jobs, farm work vs. mining vs. construction, etc.

Job creation will be the center of this election. It can’t be Act 10; though Ms. Burke has expressed support for collective bargaining rights, she has acknowledged the economic reality that has required public employees to contribute a larger percentage of their benefit packages. Continuing that fight and losing it again might remove the state Democrat party from all relevance.

To win the jobs battle, the DPW needed someone without any history of policies that could be considered traditionally liberal or hostile to entrepreneurism or job growth. Having only recently been elected to office, Ms. Burke fits that bill nicely. A recent profile of her for Isthmus reveals that a poll conducted in June convinced her to run. She said, “There were folks who were encouraging me and thinking I would be a good type of candidate who could win, who could bring in people from the middle, who with my private-sector experience brought something to the race.” Here again she highlights her private-sector experience, which the Democratic Party will ironically bludgeon Mr. Walker with, having made a career as an elected official.

The same Isthmus profile brings to light her non-campaign campaign platform, whenever pushed for specifics. Asked about making cuts to the budget, which she jabs Mr. Walker’s administration for having increased by $4.6 billion since he took office, she said, “I would look at every single dollar to see whether it’s being well spent.” When pressed for something more specific: “I will be. Two months into the campaign I haven’t identified those. But as we move forward and put out our entire platform and economic development plan, we’ll certainly have those.”

Policy aside, her answers are void of passion, and represent a very over-coached, reined-in, refined candidate sticking to the game plan and the talking points. Any time she’s pressed on education, the area in which she’s admirably spent much of her own resources, she comes to life. On voucher schools, she has a succinct, eloquent, straightforward plan in four sentences:

First and foremost I would not allow the caps [on student enrollment] to be lifted or increased. Then I would work with the Legislature to roll back that statewide expansion. I don’t feel it’s in the best interest of our communities or students to be offering that. Then I’d look to have accountability for any schools that are taking any taxpayer dollars.

But even here, one of her few concrete policy proposals, at least in concept, Ms. Burke’s stances appear contradictory: She supports collective bargaining rights, which eliminate accountability from educators, but demands accountability from voucher schools whose educators are likely not unionized. It’s stiff, conflicting, and unnatural. To Kathleen Vinehout’s credit, she has run contrary to the party line at times, notably in her vote for concealed carry. Meanwhile, Ms. Burke is building the Perfect Democrat persona, just good enough. That’s a difficult position to put herself in when she’s running as a moderate that appeals to the non-political.

She described a couple she met from Kenosha who told her, “We believe people in Wisconsin are on a bell curve politically, and you find many more people who are nearer the middle than on each side.”

“I represent that type of candidate,” she said.

The strategy might work, playing to the Wisconsin dynamic that encourages beer drinking on weekends, rooting for the Packers, and largely ignoring politics, as I wrote about last month.

But it will fail miserably unless she is able to light a fire and speak honestly. It’s no secret that being handled and over-managed helped kill Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency.

Ms. Burke’s stiff campaign character might poll well, but it ultimately might not be enough to get her to the Governor’s Mansion.

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