Paul Begala Offers Fighting Lessons for Liberals After Wisconsin

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A controversial incumbent hangs on and retains his job despite fierce opposition in a bad economy. Sounds like a hopeful scenario for the Obama campaign, right? Instead it was Republican Scott Walker’s impressive victory in Wisconsin. If President Obama is smart—and he is nothing if not that—he will go to school on Walker. Here are some lessons he has probably already absorbed.

Money Matters Most. As the great political strategist Lyle Lovett sang, “No finance, no romance.” They won’t fall in love with you if they don’t hear your message. And that means M-O-N-E-Y. Walker’s campaign raised an astonishing $30.5 million. The campaign of his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett? Just $3.9 million. Outside groups then compounded the asymmetry, pouring tens of millions into Wisconsin, the vast majority of it going to the pro-Walker side. You cannot get outspent by that kind of margin and win, period.

Ground War Can’t Counter Air Superiority. It has become fashionable in progressive circles for activists and donors to delude themselves into thinking that a tidal wave of advertising can be answered by an army of grassroots organizers. It can’t. Sure, person-to-person campaigning is necessary—but it is not sufficient. Without a competitive media campaign, even the best grassroots organization will fail. (Full disclosure: I am an adviser to Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC, which focuses on advertising.)

The pro-Walker forces got the point. They fought with everything they had. They took the fight to Barrett over the airwaves—and that’s where they won. One labor source active in the Wisconsin effort summed it up this way: “Our field effort was unprecedented and, amazingly, [we] increased union turnout from a presidential election year, which is pretty much impossible. But if we aren’t backed up, we can’t deliver the game by ourselves.”

The Base Ain’t Enough. Wisconsin hasn’t gone for a Republican in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan. And yet even with remarkably high turnout from progressives, exit polls showed that just 21 percent of Badgers consider themselves liberal, while 36 percent are conservative. There’s more of them than there are of us—so in order to remain president, Barack Obama has to capture the majority of independents. That means a base-only strategy cannot suffice. I don’t doubt that the president knows this. I suspect he wonders why his liberal supporters, who love to complain that he didn’t propose a Canadian-style health-care system, don’t.

If you need further proof that there just aren’t enough liberals, consider this from John McCormack of the conservative Weekly Standard: even if every single person eligible to vote in the Democratic bastions of Dane County (Madison) and Milwaukee County (Barrett’s base) had voted—not just every registered voter, but 100 percent of everyone legally allowed to vote—Walker would still have won.

Go Ugly Early. Negative ads saved Scott Walker’s job. His campaign and its allies blasted labor unions and his opponent. They began in the gutter and wound up in the sewer—even shamefully implying Barrett was somehow responsible for a Milwaukee 2-year-old who had been beaten while Barrett was the city’s mayor. And Walker’s allies were little better. One ad by a Tea Party group attacked “labor-union mobs,” as if the peaceful labor protests of 2012 were somehow different from the spirited but peaceful Tea Party protests of 2010.

Just to bust one more myth: all that negativity didn’t discourage voting. Despite a remarkably negative campaign from both sides, turnout was 56 percent—higher even than during the 2010 general election.

Class Warfare Has Already Begun. When the PAC I advise ran ads featuring people who were laid off by Mitt Romney, the smart set gasped. “Class warfare!” they cried. Well, no. We weren’t attacking Romney for being rich but for getting rich in part by loading up companies with debt, driving them into bankruptcy, firing workers, closing plants, canceling promised health benefits, and walking away with millions for himself and his investors. But even many Democrats thought that crossed the line. Funny that the morning-show yakkers weren’t equally offended by attacks on public servants and their unions—as if our economic crisis had been caused by bargaining rights for teachers, cops, and firefighters rather than Wall Street. Warren Buffett had it right when he said, “There’s class warfare, all right. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

It will be fascinating to see if liberals, who say they believe in evolution, are able to evolve, adapt, and overcome the forces that reelected Scott Walker and are poised to dump President Obama.