In the seminal—and oft-quoted—scene from the 1967 film The Graduate, young Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is approached by Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) at Ben's graduation party. "Ben, come with me for a minute. I want to talk to you," says the burly McGuire. "I just want to say one word to you . . . just one word." After a confused Ben insists he's listening, McGuire spits it out. "Plastics. There's a great future in plastics."
No doubt it's a scene in which the Wisconsin GOP shadow candidate for Senate, Ron Johnson, can relate to. In fact, it wouldn't be at all surprising if that very scene played out at Johnson's own graduation party—assuming he ever graduated from an institute of higher learning.
More on that later. As a political junkie and Milwaukee native, who's been living in New York City for the past twenty years, I've been keenly following the Wisconsin Senate race between Democrat Russ Feingold and Republican Ron Johnson. To be honest I hadn't really planned to give it much heed. After all, Feingold is perhaps the most moderate and ideologically free politician in Congress—occasionally to the consternation of progressives across the state. And personally his positions have frustrated my deeply held progressive (read: liberal) beliefs. Shockingly, he was the only Democrat to vote against a motion to dismiss the ludicrous impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton; he voted for the confirmation of Attorney General John Ashcroft; and voted for conservative activist John Roberts to be the Chief Justice of the (now very hard-right) Supreme Court.
Feingold took office in 1993 after beating the right-wing and supremely ineffective Republican incumbent Bob Kasten—who only made headlines in Washington, D.C., when he was busted for DWI. Of course, Feingold really made a name for himself when he co-authored, with John McCain, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (a.k.a. "McCain/Feingold"), which ironically has now been completely upended by the the incredibly obtuse decision in the Citizens United case. (How's that for a thank-you from Chief Justice Roberts?)
Politically speaking Wisconsin is a reliable "blue" state—it has voted for the Democratic nominee for President since 1984, has two Democratic senators, and five of its eight House members are Democrats (at least as this post goes to press). The Badger State has a long tradition of spawning progressive politicians, but the state also has a streak of independence. At the state level, the governorships change parties every dozen years, but by and large it's a state made up of left-leaning moderates.
Though every once and a while the state gets rattled by a shadow candidate, or an outright nut job (or both). Sure, Wisconsin was home to such legendary progressives as William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson, the man responsible for Earth Day. But it was also home to psychotic red-baiter Eugene McCarthy. Currently, the title of "Wisconsin nut job" in Congress now goes to long-serving GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. In D.C.'s power corridors, he's known as a simpleton, but in reality he's much more dangerous. He's a hard-right, heartless douchebag whose What-Would-Jesus-Do moment occurred in September 2005, when he voted against a bill providing $50 billion in emergency aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina; a class act through and through.
The current shadow candidate in Wisconsin this election season is Johnson, an Oshkosh businessman who's sunk $4.4 million of his own cash into unseating Feingold. Just who is this guy with the plainest, most white-bread name in America? Scion of the Wisconsin-based S.C. Johnson Company? Nope? Owner of the Ron Jon Surf Shop? Nope. The little-known Wisconsin millionaire heads a company called PACUR (all caps, please), a plastics-manufacturing operation. The super-exciting company makes things like blister-packaging—you know, the stuff you swore at after it caused an emergency-room visit to treat a deep-puncture wound sustained after your nineteenth attempt to open your new package of headphones.
But Johnson didn't just sense a need and decide to build a company on his own to satisfy that need. Not necessary. You see, PACUR was actually a subsidiary of another plastics company called Curwood—conveniently located in . . . Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Curwood started operation in 1958 by Howard Curler, and when it eventually became a behemoth in the plastics industry, it merged with the Bemis Company. Curler, wanting to keep a bigger slice of the company for himself—and his family—"founded" PACUR. Who's PACUR's only client? Well . . . Bemis of course? And whose daughter is married to Ron Johnson? Howard Curler's, naturally. What better wedding present than a sham company?
Even Politco's Jim VandeHei, the right-wing journalist who hails from the adopted hometown of Johnson, has questioned the shadow candidate's bona fides. In a story in Politico, VandeHei said that Johnson's "media diet consists mainly of The Wall Street Journal and talk radio" and that "he is very reluctant to engage in specifics on Social Security and Medicare." He concludes that Johnson will be more of a message candidate; not one who actually attempts to get legislation passed.
I suppose if this crackpot wins the election, Wisconsin residents can only hope he abides by that principle, as Johnson's positions on the issues are laughable if they weren't so dangerous: Global warming is caused by sunspots; all government spending is bad (unless it benefits his plastics company); the only solution to immigration is "securing the borders"; Social Security is a "ponzi scheme"; BP was unfairly criticized; and the Federal Reserve should be abolished. These are just the appetizers.
If Johnson somehow manages to eke out a win—and recent polls suggest he just might—Wisconsin residents shouldn't be surprised when he embarrasses the state and vies for the most ineffective member of Congress. At best he'll be Sarah Palin in a cheap suit who lacks her oratorical gifts. (See Feingold wallop Johnson in the most recent debate here. Johnson slurs his words and races through his talking points like a drunk trying to pick up a floozy.) Like all the despicable tea-party candidates running for Congress, Johnson will spend his time on the Senate floor bloviating and grandstanding—making speeches espousing his homophobia, blocking every effort to dig us out of Bush's recession, probably joining the birther movement. In essence, he'll mimic his supreme leader, Sen. Jim DeMint, the deranged knuckle-dragger from South Carolina.
Democrats and liberals alike can take some comfort, however. Although I've argued that the midterm elections are going to be far more favorable to Democratic candidates than the "liberal" media has predicted, I may be wr . . . wr . . . wrong. If I am, President Obama and his Democratic colleagues needn't cry in their collective beers. Once the electorate has a taste of the tea partiers—a Sen. Sharron Angle, a Sen. Rand Paul, or that insane Congressional candidate and tea partier who dresses up like a Nazi—they'll be angry angry enough to correct their mistakes and hopefully vote back into office the political party that at least began to dig us out of Bush's truculent economic crap storm. And that bitter tea taste will still linger in the mouths of voters come 2012, when President Obama trounces the Sarah Palin/Glenn Beck ticket, winning more than 500 electoral votes—a much-needed bright light at the end of an incredibly dark tunnel.
If Feingold does in fact manage to snag a victory in November—and there's some glimmer of hope—the entire Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will need to rethink the tactics used by its Democratic candidates. As the right wingers are so eager to point out, Feingold is the only Senate candidate who's actually running on his vote to pass the health care reform bill. Should he win, it'll prove that Democrats should have run on their records instead of running away from them.