Obama’s emphasis on Wisconsin reflects national political strategy

By Arthur I. Cyr

Manufacturing is coming back, declared President Barack Obama at a Master Lock plant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Actually, the U.S. remains one of the principal manufacturing powers on the planet, but this trip was designed to help win November elections, not provide an economics lecture.

Wisconsin is a priority for both parties in politics and policy. In January 2011, the president visited Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc the day after the State of the Union speech. In July 2010, he held a lively town hall meeting in Racine, an area with long-term economic problems.

President Obama consistently emphasizes Democratic Party themes of aiding workers. In interchange with citizens, he argues unemployment would be even higher without the enormous federal stimulus. Obama carried the state by a comfortable margin in 2008, but Republicans won in 2010. Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Janesville, Wisconsin is becoming a steadily more influential point person for a dramatically contrasting conservative vision of the economy.

A year ago, Ryan delivered the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union address. Picking him for this role underscored Wisconsin’s importance for both parties, and also this particular rising politician’s seriousness and influence as a policy advocate. Southeast Wisconsin’s Ryan has earned a solid reputation for effective economic analysis and specific federal budget proposals. In our electronic age, where policy complexities are reduced to TV sound bites, Ryan is old-school serious in approach. Voters here traditionally elect Congressional representatives noted for specific sustained policy priorities. Long-term Democratic Congressman Les Aspin was thoroughly expert on defense. He had a Ph.D. from MIT, and started out in Washington as one of the controversial “Whiz Kids” of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Democrat Peter Barca succeeded Aspin for a time, and both before and since has been elected to the state legislature. Barca throughout his career has been a knowledgeable advocate for disabled children, and increasingly prominent in state politics. His successor in the House of Representatives, Republican Mark Neumann, developed initiatives regarding both budget and defense policies. In sum, this part of Wisconsin has an earned reputation for electing policy advocates who consistently do their homework. At the comprehensive strategic level of national politics, the Midwest is crucial to Obama’s re-election. Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser develop this theme in detail in their superb book “How Barack Obama Won.” Obama is from Illinois, the Iowa caucuses provided initial national campaign success, Missouri provided an important Super Tuesday victory, the Wisconsin primary reinforced momentum, and Indiana cemented his nomination. Wisconsin remains a lynchpin for Democratic election strategists. The state went for Vice President Al Gore over Governor George W. Bush in 2000 by 4,000 votes, for Senator John Kerry over President Bush in 2004 by 12,000, but for Obama over Senator John McCain by more than 400,000 votes. Obama won 56.2 percent of the state presidential vote. In 2008, Obama won the White House without a Southern running mate, the only time since World War II the Democrats have been victorious without that region represented either on the top of the ticket or by the nominee for vice president. Obama’s victory indirectly upended Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which brought that region into the Republican fold. In practical politics, the only kind which counts, this more conservative Republican Party has provided new openings for Democrats in the North, in particular among suburban women voters. Office seekers be aware, or be sorry. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu