In 2002, Jim Doyle ran for governor pushing a radically frugal approach to government employment: He would slash the number of employees by 10,000, essentially eliminating the entire increase in the state payroll that occurred under expansionist Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Doyle promised to do this over two terms, should he be re-elected, but has […]

In 2002, Jim Doyle ran for governor pushing a radically frugal approach to government employment: He would slash the number of employees by 10,000, essentially eliminating the entire increase in the state payroll that occurred under expansionist Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Doyle promised to do this over two terms, should he be re-elected, but has fallen a bit behind in his projections, having cut more than 3,400 positions.

Doyle also inherited a $3.2 billion deficit. He hasn’t eliminated it, as he claims, but has reduced it significantly, cutting it at least in half. And the state’s rankings as a high-tax state have gone down slightly under him.

Compare that record to his opponent’s. Congressman Mark Green voted for budgets that created the largest federal deficits in history. And state Rep. Green voted for Thompson-era budgets that jacked up government spending and employees.

So who do the voters think is more likely to cut taxes? Mark Green.

That, at least, is what was found by the very detailed Badger Poll, done by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center and released on October 30. A slight majority of those polled thought Green was most likely to keep taxes down, while Doyle, by a bigger margin, was seen as most likely to balance the budget.

How can Green keep taxes down without balancing the budget? The same way Thompson and other Republicans did. Under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, taxes were cut not by cutting spending but by running historically unprecedented budget deficits and leaving it to others to raise taxes and balance the budget. That is exactly what President Bill Clinton did, achieving a surplus his successor promptly erased.

Increasingly, Democrats are the ones who have to clean up the fiscal mess left behind by Republicans. “I have to be the adult,” as Doyle put it in one debate with Green. But being responsible may not seem all that sexy to voters.

For decades, Democrats won elections by convincing middle-class voters they were better on pocketbook issues, by protecting unions, Social Security and progressive taxation that falls hardest on the wealthy. But in the post-Reagan years, as labor power and manufacturing declined, the differences between the parties on economic issues seemed to erode. Clinton’s support of free-trade agreements was a bitter pill to swallow for unions and blue-collar workers. If there was no difference between the parties on economic issues, then voters were likely to make decisions based on social issues.

The characterization of Democrats as elitists has been made to stick not so much because of issues like gun control or abortion but because Democrats seemed uncaring about pocketbook issues where they were once seen as standing with the common person.

Sen. Russ Feingold has been a consistent opponent of free-trade agreements, thereby sending a simple message to workers that he is on their side. James Webb, the Reagan Republican turned Democrat who is running for U.S. senator in Virginia against incumbent Republican George Allen, also opposes free trade. But they stand out as exceptions in their party.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that a million jobs were lost nationwide due to NAFTA, with big losses in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Republican candidates are struggling. A major manufacturing state like Wisconsin ranked seventh among the states in the percent of total state employment lost due to NAFTA, according to the study.

The Iraq war is a big issue in this mid-term election, and that may benefit the Democrats. But in the long run, the party will continue to lose unless it is seen as fighting for the economic needs of middle-class voters. That’s easier said than done, but it may start with winning the argument that budget deficits rob money from every taxpayer’s pocketbook.

The Journal Sentinel’s Surprising Endorsements

To understand just how shocking the Journal Sentinel’s condemnation of Republican Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner and its endorsement of upstart Democrat Bryan Kennedy is, it helps to consider a little history.

After The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel merged, the new editorial page editor was former Sentinel Editor Keith Spore, who steered a conservative course, even endorsing Bob Dole for president in 1996. He was succeeded by Kenneth Roesslein, another Sentinel veteran who was less predictable but leaned right. Then came Michael Ruby, a former U.S. News & World Report editor, who was a moderate conservative.

All three ran an editorial board of journalists who varied in their political views. Under Roesslein and Ruby, this often resulted in consensus picks of incumbent candidates, be they Republican or Democrat. The JS made no endorsement for president in 2000 and was again ready to make no endorsement in 2004. Only after national stories embarrassed the paper for its inability to pick a candidate did the editorial board guts up, endorsing John Kerry.

But the hiring of O. Ricardo Pimentel has transformed the newspaper’s editorials. While I was at the JS, Pimentel wrote a remarkably powerful editorial about executive pay following my series on this issue. His writing was bold, clear and unrelenting, with none of the usual qualifiers and namby-pamby language found in editorials of the past.

The recent anti-Sensenbrenner editorial was written by David Haynes, who was appointed deputy editorial page editor by Pimentel, and the style was as bold as the boss’ best. “Sensenbrenner was wrong on the USA Patriot Act… the version he championed strode upon the liberty of every American,” Haynes wrote. “The congressman is wrong on a host of issues and increasingly belligerent and unproductive.”

For a newspaper that so long worried about being mainstream and soft-pedaling its editorials, this is radical stuff. The editorial doubtless triggered howls of protest from conservatives, but on the same page, the paper ran a column by editorial board member Patrick McIlheran, offering an adamant defense of Sensenbrenner that doubtless outraged liberals.

The elevation of one-time graphic designer McIlheran to a position as part-time columnist was actually a decision that predated Pimentel’s arrival, but under Pimentel, McIlheran has joined the editorial board and has become a full-time columnist. At times, his column functions as a kind of Op-Ed to the paper’s lead editorial.

McIlheran can write, but his columns often suggest a naively knee-jerk Republican without an ounce of the usual reporter’s cynicism. Yet in the context of the JS editorial page, his columns often work, providing a needed counterpoint.

The paper is still likely to strive for some kind of balance in its endorsements: Thus, the editorial backing of Doyle was offset by an endorsement for Republican J.B. Van Hollen for attorney general (and written by Pimentel, who is no conservative).

But Pimentel is moving the paper in an interesting direction, replacing the mainstream pieties of the old JS editorial page with tougher, pro and con views of the issues. It’s awfully wonky and wordy for the visual culture of the 21st century but bespeaks a passion for the issues and for fairness that is surely welcome in the state’s largest newspaper.

Why Doyle Will Win

Among the other interesting results in the Badger Poll was that a majority of people felt that corruption in government had stayed about the same under Jim Doyle and that Republicans were as responsible (if not more responsible) for such problems. That’s an issue Green had to win to defeat Doyle and may help explain why Doyle had a strong edge among independents in the poll. The governor will win re-election, though not by a large margin.