The Wisconsin Primary* & Barack Obama

by Rick Rockwell**

Cheeseheads haven’t seen this much political attention in a generation.

In case you missed it, Obamamania rolled into Wisconsin last week on the heels of Barack Obama’s trifecta win in the Potomac Primary. And tomorrow, if all the pundits are right, Sen. Obama (D-IL) will notch another win in a string of victories he’s put together since the stalemate of Super Tuesday.

The last time Wisconsin saw this much excitement was when Jimmy Carter used the state as a stepping stone to move ahead of the Democratic pack in the 1976 campaign. Or maybe some want to recall the race from 1960 (which you can still see in the documentary classic Primary) when Jack Kennedy pulled an upset over Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy was on his way to the nomination, Camelot, and all that myth would have us believe afterward.

This time, Wisconsin won’t be as decisive as those historic contests. Some might even argue that Wisconsin was Howard Dean’s last stand in 2004, and so might have been more decisive in that failed race to the White House.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has spent more time in other states (Ohio and Texas) than on the campaign trail in Wisconsin. Although the state has a strong blue collar Democratic base and a progressive history, the Clinton camp in their cost-cutting and downsizing, have at least grudgingly ceded much of the momentum to Obama, who has been met with swooning crowds in Madison and Milwaukee. Win those cities and the rest of the state doesn’t usually matter. And those cities are so close to Illinois, Obama might as well be campaigning in his backyard.

Of course, that’s what the good Senator Humphrey of Minnesota thought in 1960 and look where he landed: second fiddle in the Johnson administration instead of heading the ticket. But with polls so unreliable this year and Wisconsin’s open primary notorious for upsets it could even be the start of Hillary’s next big comeback. No one really knows, including this author.

Wisconsin is actually the state that invented the primary (instead of the easily manipulated caucus or merely the smoke-filled room full of political bosses jousting) as part of the Progressive movement. The Progressives, by the way, were a splinter group from the Republican Party, although by the end of the 20th Century most LaFollette Progressives were connected to the Democratic Party.

And what would Wisconsin’s Progressives think about Obama? Well, the magazine named after the movement gave Obama a gushing review and predicted he would win the state handily. As usual though, the coverage seemed focused on the fireworks and not on the facts: details of Obama’s programs were barely mentioned. That seems a bit light for the usually serious Progressive.

From this perspective, far from the primary frontline this week, it appears the race is back in the rut of parsing the meaning of soundbites rather than policy. Certainly, no great or important statements will get made until the victory speeches tomorrow night or the debate later this week in Texas. Even that will likely be mostly a repeat. And one might ask when will we get a debate on foreign policy – somewhere to explore topics beyond Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, as if those nations were the only focus of a future president? Not to mention, shouldn't we explore what Obama meant by his bellicose statements regarding Pakistan? Of course, that was months before anyone was paying much attention.

But that’s just grousing about a primary season that seems stuck on the same simple notes; it's beginning to taste like stale cheddar.

*Hawaii, the native state of Sen. Obama, will also hold caucuses on Feb. 19; Obama has usually scored well in most of the caucuses this year.

**The author covered politics in Wisconsin for Wisconsin Public Television during the 1980s.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(Political graphic from StrangePolitics, a website that offers copyright-free political material.)

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