And Johnson blew it. Massively.
Below are the five most significant issues that are sinking the U.S.S Ron Johnson. At times it seemed we could have extended the list ad infinitum. It includes incidents some readers undoubtedly are familiar with and at least one they probably aren't. (Admittedly, we really buried the lede on Johnson's reckless leaking of sensitive information as a member of the Homeland Security committee, an issue no one in Wisconsin seems to have discussed yet.) All of them have proved him to be an incompetent politician, clueless legislator and utterly out-of-touch elitist who is doing his best to alienate soft supporters and independents.
We've listed them in order of importance.
2011 ended for Johnson with a losing bid for the #5 position in the GOP Senate leadership. Apparently having not understood the hint, Johnson began 2012 by proposing a congressional campaign strategy called "America's Choice" that went exactly nowhere. The plan telegraphed Johnson's preference for eschewing policy-crafting in favor of inside baseball Beltway politics, but revealed a clumsy strategist unconcerned about the details. Yet despite a clear desire to enhance his profile as a political heavyweight Johnson curiously refrained from endorsing any of the GOP presidential candidates until April 1st, by which time Mitt Romney (clearly his preferred candidate from the get-go) had already essentially locked up the nomination. He did the same during the Wisconsin Senate GOP primary, even though most observers believed he felt more of a kinship with Eric Hovde and could have helped push him over the top during a very close election. Instead, he wound up campaigning for Tommy Thompson during the general, someone Johnson was, at best, "lukewarm" about.
Thompson, of course, lost to Tammy Baldwin, someone Johnson clearly has nothing but disdain for. Staying on the sidelines of the Senate race may have been the right move, considering Thompson's history in Wisconsin and the lifetime of allies and connections he's accrued -- we'll concede that. But if that was the case, he should have backed Thompson from the beginning and spared the GOP a contentious primary that did a great deal to diminish their eventually nominee and give Tammy Baldwin a wide berth to the Senate.
The most telling, and consequential, episode of the year for Johnson was a bizarre report in Roll Call describing the Senator's plans to "purge" his Washington, DC staff. The ensuing article did not paint a flattering portrait of life in Johnson's office or his ability to negotiate the Halls of Power. Worst of all, the subtext of the piece made it appear like Johnson got played by one of his subordinates -- clearly, someone working for him was not enthusiastic about the prospect of losing his or her job and leaked the story to buy some time on the government payroll while he or she explored options elsewhere -- a rather substantial humiliation for a member of "the world's most exclusive club."
How Johnson reacted to this episode is extraordinarily telling. First he denied any mass personnel changes as rumor (natch) and then cited his close loss in the Senate GOP leadership election as a indication of progress and stability. He then noted that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had appointed him as a liaison between Mitt Romney's campaign and Senate conservative. Unfortunately, Roy Blunt, the man who beat Johnson for the #5 GOP leadership position in the Senate was given the exact same position. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Team Romney selected Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers to Johnson's and/or Blunt's equivalent position, despite there being almost 200 more conspicuously unruly Republicans to keep in line. Why the Senate would require two people when the House only need one suggests that Johnson was simply given a title without any real responsibilities to placate the tea party faction of the party, while Blunt did the heavy lifting.
Johnson was largely absent from the Wisconsin political scene during the first six months of the year, it's most contentious period in living memory. For a time he made a number of appearances across the country at fundraisers, both for individual GOP candidates and state parties (including speaking engagements at the Texas and New York state GOP conventions, where deep-pocketed GOP donors can be met and cultivated), but during the weeks before Scott Walker's recall election he was little seen stumping for the governor, either in Wisconsin or on TV from Washington. Again, this may have been part of Walker's strategy to paint the recall effort as organized from Washington, but a more experienced politician would have insisted on playing some role during what was always very clearly going to be a Walker win so as to claim some portion, however tiny, of the victory.
By the time colleague Paul Ryan was chosen as the GOP VP nominee in August, Johnson was poised to find a promotion as a kind of campaign surrogate, a validator of Ryan's (and thereby Romney's) strong character, high morals, etc. But that never really happened. For the remainder of the presidential campaign, and especially during the all important month of October, Johnson was confined to stumping in Wisconsin and going on the kind of college campus tour usually left for celebrity surrogates and not elected officials. Granted, this might have had a large part to do with Ryan's diminishing role during the Romney campaign following the re-emergence of "Moderate Mitt" during the debates.
All of which begs the question: why couldn't Johnson book better gigs?
The answer likely goes back to Johnson's touch-and-go staff purge during the spring. At the time of the Roll Call article, Johnson categorically denied the reports, but as 2012 wore on most of the members of his senior staff quietly split under the din of the Presidential election. Just in October alone Johnson lost a policy adviser, his communications director and his chief of staff. In other words, Johnson did end up purging his staff, he just waited a few months for the dust to settle.
Johnson has no inside game. His relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who ostensibly functions as Johnson's boss, is clearly very weak. Again, it's important to point out one of the most damning indictments from the April Roll Call article on Johnson's staff upheaval:
While top Republican sources expressed exasperation at the internal turmoil in Johnson’s office, they also noted that the Wisconsin freshman has not been diligent in building relationships with other Senators within the Conference and has alienated himself by not reaching out more frequently to colleagues.
“He’s an interesting case study of someone who has talked more than he has listened, lectured more than he has developed relationships with his colleagues, and now he’s having a tough time because of that behavior in advancing his policy goals,” one senior GOP aide said. “It’s kind of like watching a temper tantrum by a 2-year-old in the middle of the grocery store.”
“The Senate is still about relationships, and he doesn’t seem to get that,” the aide continued.Why is this important? Because it's indicative of someone whose slipped into a siege or bunker mentality. By failing to reach out to his colleagues and their staffs Johnson is depriving himself of top flight talent and blockading himself from possible points of access. No sign is more evident of this insularity than Johnson's recent change of his Chief of Staff.
When Johnson arrived in Washington two years ago he hired Don Kent to run his DC office:
Don Kent worked for five years in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. His responsibilities included helping department officials prepare for Senate confirmations. He also served as the principal legislative advisor to then-Secretary Michael Chertoff.This was important because Johnson was appointed to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. But Kent left at the beginning of October and, as we'll see a little later on, took with him a good deal of the Johnson office's national security tact with him.
Johnson's new chief of staff is Ken McKay, who once resigned as RNC chief of staff following a minor, but noteworthy, scandal involving party funds being spent at a Hollywood bondage club. McKay worked at the RNC at the same time that current chair Reince Priebus was general counsel and it would be reasonable to assume he received a recommendation from his former colleague. McKay was at least rumored to be taking over as Chief of Staff as long as a year ago (then again in April.) We've talked about the staffer death spiral before and this certainly seems like like another phase in that long downward trajectory of an employer who is quick to reward friends (or a least friends of friends) at the expense of merit.
Why is all of this important? Because Johnson's office has clearly been in the middle of a transitional period at least as far back as April and as a consequence missed a golden opportunity to enhance his profile and demonstrate leadership. A freshman member of the senate can't do that by himself. He needs a team that will promote him to the media and bring him into the important meetings. If your staff knows its not going to be around in a few months, they have no incentive to build you up. During the run-up to the Supreme Court's Obamacare hearing at the end of March, Johnson's team managed to get their boss all kinds media attention, but after the Roll Call article Johnson seemed to disappear and was left "wandering radio row ... doing interviews with right-wing hosts as someone who knows Paul Ryan" during the RNC.
Most politicians in DC would sell their children for the kind of fortune Ron Johnson enjoyed this year. Yet instead of capitalizing Johnson's just watched the pitch sail over the plate. It took him no less than six months to get his house in order and those six months just happened to be the single most important time of his political career. If Johnson can't manage his own staff then he doesn't have a prayer managing other members of the Senate.
That's already happening. Remember Johnson's close loss to Roy Blunt for a leadership position at the end of 2011? Well, the GOP have already held their leadership elections in the wake of their 2012 drubbing and once again Blunt will be the Senate's GOP conference vice chair. This time Johnson didn't even bother challenging him.
Since Johnson never managed to become the authority on economic issues that he'd like to be, it was only a matter of time before the Senator wandered into national security, an area Johnson has never demonstrated much aptitude for. In February Johnson got his feet wet by using the tried and true Republican tactic of trying to make Democrats look weak by criticizing their proposed cuts to the DoD. Johnson wants to increase the defense budget. The problem with this stance is that it's completely incompatible to Johnson's hard line on every other aspect of government spending, which goes a long way to rendering Johnson's arguments on the matter utterly useless.
But that didn't stop Johnson from trying to wield the national security cudgel, especially for brazenly political purposes. With one notable exception, Johnson's forays into security issues have all centered around matters that conservatives clearly hoped to become scandals that would envelop the Obama administration.
As a member of the Homeland Security Committee, Johnson got in front of the Secret Service prostitution scandal in May. This was a delicate and sensitive issue that Johnson appeared to negotiate with a certain degree of skill, though a matter with which Johnson clearly sought to embarrass the White House. Unfortunately for Johnson the resolution of the scandal, as is wont to happen in Washington, was pushed back until after the election.
During the last week of September just as Chief of Staff Don Kent was leaving the office, Johnson signed on to a letter co-written by Senators McCain, Graham and Ayotte looking to clarify certain "inconsistencies" in the public record over the recent terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. The statement was made three days after the NY Times reported that what had been thought to be a State Department consulate was actually a CIA station, meaning that much of the details surrounding the attack were classified and not fodder for public consumption.
Nevertheless, these four senators continued to hammer the Administration over the public statements in the immediate aftermath of the incident through the remainder of the election -- which most observers saw as a transparent attempt to turn the issue into a kind of "October surprise." (Likely because public polling told them Obama was losing foreign policy cred on the matter.) The four senators continued to press the issue up until the election. Johnson even made a memorable, if not odd, TV appearance proclaiming Benghazi to be more important than abortion to Wisconsin voters.
Maybe here would be a good time to remind readers that Johnson insisted that the Senate not discuss Libya until the nation's budget issues were resolved during a 2011 floor speech.
Following Obama's victory, the Benghazi strategy morphed into a very personal, and apparently vindictive, attack on Susan Rice; but Johnson was curiously absent from Rice's itinerary when she went to Capitol Hill to call on her critics. It's likely that Johnson just didn't have the heart to keep playing a game that had lost its potential to cause immediate political damage to the Obama Administration/Campaign. Regardless of the reason, the episode has proved to foreshadow a far larger and much more consequential bungle by the Johnson office.
This matter has flown almost completely under the radar since it occurred just a few weeks before the election, but it's one that's certainly deserves a lot more attention as it suggests that Senator Johnson is willing to compromise classified information for political gain.
Recall last spring when Secret Service agents were busted patronizing prostitutes while off-duty during a Presidential visit to Cartegena. Well, one of the committees Senator Johnson sits on, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, has oversight responsibilities over the Secret Service and Johnson was quick to call the various parties involved to account. He also looked into possible White House involvement into the scandal, though found none. Following hearing on Capitol Hill, and investigation by the office of the Inspector General was launched into the matter that was not due to be finished and released until summer of 2013.
The length of the investigation should surprise anyone whose followed IG reports, especially into issues that involve classified or sensitive information. The delay, however, apparently did not sit well with Johnson, especially after a September FOX News report that claimed the investigation "may" have uncovered participation by members of the White advance team and that the delay in the Inspector General's investigation
sparked speculation the report was being altered or manipulated to conceal or minimize the roles of some of those involved, multiple Secret Service officials with senior leadership positions told FoxNews.com. Meanwhile, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, of the Senate Homeland Security Committee sent Edwards a letter on Sept. 14 asking for information about the status of the report.
A congressional source told FoxNews.com the Senate committee staff is particularly eager to see the report because it "includes information that two members of the White House advance team had prostitutes overnight."
"The Committee wants to know if White House staff engaged in improper conduct in Cartagena, which the White House previously denied," the source added.A month later Johnson's office released a memo outlining various "inconsistencies" -- remarkably similar to the one described in the initial September FOX report -- between sworn statements given by the Secret Service director to a congressional hearing and what was apparently IG's report and raised further questions about a cover-up of White House involvement in the scandal.
There was one significant problem: the details of Johnson's memo to the Homeland Security Committee were, very clearly, not yet vetted for public consumption. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is as vigilant about Homeland security issues as anyone, was not happy:
In a memo to the full committee today, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) laid out several points that he said are detailed in a report written by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.
The memo said the first phase of that report was completed late last month, and that subcommittee staff reviewed it at the inspector general’s office. Staffers were not allowed to keep a copy of the report, however, and the document has not been made public.
Lieberman (I-Conn.) blasted Johnson’s memo, calling it an “unauthorized leak of sensitive, selective information from the IG’s report” and saying Johnson’s assessment is unfair to the Secret Service and agency Director Mark Sullivan.
“Both have served our nation honorably and ably for a long time and deserve the benefit of a presumption of innocence unless real evidence leads to a different conclusion,” Lieberman said in a written statement. “I will await the inspector general’s finished report before making any judgments.”In other words, Johnson had not only cooked up a memo to embarrass the administration right before the election, but also one that apparently leaked sensitive information. Folks in the national security apparatus in Washington don't take kindly to either.
In all likelihood this would not have happened had Don Kent, a seasoned professional in the homeland security community, would have still been Chief of Staff. Leaking distorted and sensitive information for political gain seems something more along the lines a career political operative, like Johnson's current Chief of Staff Ken McKay, would have signed-off on.
For Johnson, national security policy takes a backseat to national security politics. He really only seems interested in issues that can discredit his opponents to one degree or that can advance his own ideology in a tangentially related field.
The lone exception to this rule was Johnson's work on cybersecurity. Truth be told, this is one of the rare instances where Johnson actually looked like he had found some Senator-material in his being. He found an important, but largely unsexy, issue and appeared to be going through the steps of mastering the technicalities of the problems, arriving at a possible solution and selling a plan to his colleagues. Despite some reasonable privacy concerns, the bill Johnson co-sponsored seemed fairly reasonable answer (all things considering) to a serious problem. This is the kind of legislative blocking and tackling that Johnson should have been doing since his first day in office, but it remains to be seen to what extent Johnson will commit to the issue now that his principle homeland security adviser has left the office. It's a pity that Johnson all but abandoned the cybersecurity initiative to go on fishing expeditions on other national security issues.
Johnson has proclaimed on numerous occasions that his primary motivation for getting into politics was the outrage he felt over Obamacare. He has used apocalyptic language to describe the bill and was even at the Supreme Court building the day the ruling was handed down hoping, no doubt, to say "I told you so!" in front of as many TV cameras as he could, but after the Supreme Court's summer ruling that the Affordable Care Act was, in fact, constitutional, Johnson could only muster a a silly soundbite and a short statement in a press release.
For all practical purposes, Obamacare is now the law of the land and it's implementation will take years (if not decades). There's very little that Johnson can do about it now. This pretty much voids his raison d'etre in the Senate. Johnson has lost a great deal of face on the matter and coming up with causes to fight for hasn't been Johnson's forte (see above). Take for example, Johnson's cause du jour in January: domestic oil production. The Senator claimed American energy interests were being squandered at the alter of green energy. That view seems quaint now only ten months later when oil production stateside is projected to eclipse Saudi Arabia's by the end of the decade. (In all likelihood, oil production was just a talking point designed to segue-way into political attacks over Solyndra loans.) If Johnson's record as an oracle is reliable, then Obamacare might just be the gold standard of health care throughout the world by 2030.
We've talked at length about this issue here.
From a strictly electoral standpoint, Johnson did himself few favors with female voters this year. What's more, it's probably not going to get better. Here are some of the notable incidents that are all but certain to come back to haunt him during re-election bids in the future:
- In March, when asked what women who can't afford birth control should do, Johnson referred them to Google.
- In April, Johnson voted against extending the Violence Against Women Act (even though 15 of his GOP colleagues in the Senate voted with the Dems to pass the bill).
- In June, outside the Supreme Court building following the the unveiling of Chief Justice Robert's decision upholding Obamacare, Johnson voiced his belief that employers should be able to refuse health coverage to cancer patients.
- In October, despite thousands of ads discussing reproductive issues airing in Wisconsin, two US Senate candidates embroiled in rape-related gaffes and Johnson himself withdrawing an endorsement of a Wisconsin assemblyman over another rape comment -- the Senator insists that abortion, and all the baggage that word carries with it, wasn't a campaign issue.
- In November Johnson actually went to Pennsylvania to campaign for GOP Senate candidate Tom Smith, who two months earlier had compared rape to childbirth out of wedlock. This was a few weeks after Johnson very reasonably withdrew his endorsement of state legislator Roger Rivard's "rape easy" comments and a couple of months after Johnson called on Todd Akin to leave the Missouri Senate race of his now notorious remarks. What made Smith's comments any more acceptable remains something of a mystery.
Take, for example, a presentation Johnson is known to give before various groups, ranging from college students to Rotary Clubs, when traveling around the state. Here's an account of one rendition delivered at Marquette University:
US Senator Ron Johnson let the numbers tell a lot of the story Tuesday during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at Marquette University Law School.
Numbers showing how the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) that comes from federal spending, which has risen a lot with projections that it will keep rising. Numbers showing how the gap between projected federal revenue and spending has grown and is forecast to become much bigger. Numbers showing how, in the history of Social Security, the amount collected exceeded the amount spent every year until 2010 but now we’re at the start of a projected long run in which payments are greater than revenue. Numbers showing how steps such as increasing taxes on rich people would do very little to close the gaps in upcoming federal budgets if we stay on the course we’re on. He showed these and other matters as graphs on two large screens in Eckstein Hall’s Appellate Courtroom.
But Johnson also included numbers on some non-economic issues. A chart on the dramatic long-term climb of “births out of wedlock” appeared to spark the most reaction in the audience of about 200. The single-mother birth rate was 6.9% in 1964 and 41% in recent years, Johnson’s chart showed. He called the rise “a very graphic, very harmful unintended consequence of all of our good intentions” in the national War on Poverty, started in the 1960s. Among the factors Johnson said were behind the increase: Public benefits policies that provided unintended incentives for mothers not to get married. As “a compassionate society,” he said, government wanted to help those in need.
Asked by an audience member what could be done now to change the trend, Johnson said he didn’t know the answer, but he thought the facts were important to understand. He said he was not advocating for not helping people in need.It's not difficult to walk away from those two figures being juxtaposed as such and not conclude that Johnson is blaming the country's medical and financial problems on women having kids out of wedlock, as if it were solely responsible for their circumstances. Not proposing any solution to the problem only exasperates the matter by seeming callously unconcerned with the issue.
Did I mention this is a speech that Johnson gives frequently?
Any one of these examples, taken by themselves, may (and let us stress here may) not be a big deal; but when examined as a series of recurring events they start to paint a narrative of Johnson being anti-women. Given the important role that single women played during the 2012 election, that's a dangerous position for any politician to be in.
It's next to impossible to walk away from 2012 thinking the Johnson brand is anything but a sorry one. During an interview with the lavishly sympathetic Wall Street Journal two weeks before the election, Johnson came off as sullen, unhappy in Washington, morose, even a bit despondent. This was the lead:
'I try to forget I had a good life," Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson wistfully quips about his career before being elected in 2010—or as good a life as could be had running a business in the midst of an unrelenting regulatory and rhetorical assault from Washington.It's hard not to read an angst-ridden sigh in between those lines -- and it's hard to imagine how Johnson's lot will improve given the political dynamic of the short-term future. Johnson seems to gravitate to polarizing figures within the GOP, whether it's winning the praise of Foster Frieze, singing the praises of David Horowitz or dining with a Koch brother Johnson seems at home on the extremes and after two years of fighting on the fringes. That's a very hard place to come back from.
Johnson's opponents are now openly mocking him as "dumb" -- a rather sophomoric insult that was until recently was something liberals were content to keep to themselves, suggesting that it might be a more common belief than it was two years ago. Whenever Johnson is in the news it's usually for reasons that make people wince. His approval ratings are down to 38% from as high as 45% 16 months ago. None of these are good signs.
But the worst sign was Johnson truly insipid analysis of the 2012 election:
Johnson attributed Obama's win on the heels of those Republican gains in Wisconsin to an uninformed electorate who voted in this election but not in the [Scott] Walker recall.
"If you aren't properly informed, if you don't understand the problems facing this nation, you are that much more prone to falling prey to demagoguing solutions. And the problem with demagoguing solutions is they don't work," Johnson said. "I am concerned about people who don't fully understand the very ugly math we are facing in this country."It's a wonder if Johnson learned anything from the election at all -- here he is essentially calling the 53% of Wisconsin voters who voted for Obama ignorant.
Johnson has spent the last two years molding a reputation as a Senator who doesn't like the people he's working with, doesn't like the people working for him and, most importantly, doesn't like the people he's working for. Every time he is asked to explain a phenomenon that doesn't quiet conform to his expectations or worldview he comes off as frustrated, inconvenienced, irritable, incurious, insulting and in a state of complete denial that transcends mere spin. The Ron Johnson brand is a shambles.
This is what Wisconsin is stuck with for the next four years: an ineffective Senator who has little interest in crafting any -- not just good, but any -- legislation and whom is using his incredibly powerful position in Washington to merely air his personal grievances against Americans he seems to know little or care about.
We don't expect Johnson to bother running for re-election in 2016 and can even see him cutting his term in Washington short under certain circumstances. If there are any lessons to be learned from 2012 election it's that the tea party wave that washed Johnson on the shores of the Potomac is rapidly receding. Johnson still one of the low men on the Senate's seniority totem pole and his ideology is already ancient history, something the GOP is running away from as fast as it can these days. But don't expect any conversions from Johnson. That inability to adjust with the zeitgeist is going to continue to alienate Johnson among his colleagues and push him further to the fringes.
2013 should have been a break-out year for Johnson. Instead, he's simply going to be the Senator with the eighth-least seniority in the minority party. The GOP was supposed to build on the gains it made in 2010 and won back the Senate, which would have propelled tea party Senators like Johnson to places of influence in the Senate and party leadership. That didn't happen. Now the GOP is panicking about demographic shifts, a sizable technology gap, an unaccountable consultant class, and a fundamental changes to conservatism's core ideology. All of that is far, far removed from what Johnson's called "America's Choice" -- or what the Senator thought in January was going to be a successful plan to win over voters.
Johnson still has time to pull himself out of the death spiral which his career in the Senate. That's one of the benefits of being in the Upper House: time. But there is no evidence to suggest that Johnson has the ability, inclination or patience to use that time effectively. Don't expect 2013 to be much different from 2012 in Johnson's office, which is something we'll probably be repeating 12 months from now.