Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ron Johnson's Political Career is Over

If you haven't read the damning Roll Call article on the dysfunction plaguing Ron Johnson's Washington Senate office, here you go. It's a masterpiece of the process genre of political reportage, which is a highfaluting way of saying it's juicy as hell.

A couple of thoughts on the implications:

1.) Ron Johnson's staff doesn't respect him.

The "big picture," over-aching theme that ties all the details of the Roll Call piece together is that Johnson's office is a terrible place to work. A legislator who gets pinned with that label enters into a slow motion death spiral: the good talent flees in the opposite direction and all that's left to hire is the marginal and/or inexperienced staffers. The Leftovers don't get the job done, which leads to more intra-office strife, more resignations/terminations, further damage to an office's reputation, etc. Wash. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

2.) It's clear that word on Capitol Hill is that Johnson's office is a dead end career-wise:
Though candidates don’t necessarily bring their entire campaign staffs with them once elected, it is very rare to have no carryover from the campaign, sources said. GOP sources not affiliated with the campaign or Johnson’s office said former staffers had indicated the Wisconsin Senator was frustrated with his operation in the days following the election and informed his staffers they would not be coming with him to D.C.

According to a Roll Call review of Federal Election Commission disclosure filings and the staff salary database LegiStorm, only four of the 42 salaried campaign staffers working in the last quarter of Johnson’s 2010 Senate campaign got jobs with the Senator. Johnson retained his state director, deputy state director, a caseworker and a receptionist from the campaign — all of whom are based in Wisconsin.
Actually, all of them are based here in Oshkosh ... and it's safe to say that none of them were part of the brain trust that navigated Johnson to victory. Either Johnson chose only to reward his close friends with jobs or he grew an ego and thought the hard part was over. Neither makes him look good and sends a message to potential staffers that career advancement is not based on merit, but Johnson's arbitrary whims.

Just look at Robert Duncan, who plays a supporting role in the drama:
[T]he situation in Johnson’s office has escalated in recent weeks. The top brass of the Senate Republican Steering Committee — the Conference’s conservative hub — have connected at least one Johnson legislative aide with another GOP Senate office, and sources indicated they may be helping others find jobs before they are asked to permanently clear their desks.
It's implied later in the piece that that staffer was Robert Duncan, who got a a $30,000+ raise when he jumped ship from the Senate GOP Secretary's office to become Johnson's legislative director. Where's he working now? Back at the Senate GOP' Secretary's office as a floor assistant, and not likely at the same salary he had as a senior staffer with Johnson.

Why would he jump ship? Because Johnson has no interest in crafting or advancing any legislation at all. Johnson spent his entire first year in the Senate drifting shiftlessly from one issue to the next, trying to find something to latch on to only to discover that doing requires substantial expertise which both the Senator and his office lack. There are usually two ways to remedy this situation. The first is putting in the work to become an expert on a given issue. Johnson's done nothing to show he's capable of this. The second is to use one's interpersonal talents to develop allies who do the dense policy work for you. This is usually called "basic workplace etiquette." Stunningly, Johnson seems incapable of even this:
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.
Now that's a pull quote. From this we can infer:

3.) Johnson is not respected by his colleagues:
The Wisconsin Senator said recently that he would like to refocus his efforts on political messaging, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has asked him to help coordinate strategy with the eventual GOP presidential nominee.
Translation: Go over to the kids table and leave the heavy lifting to the pros. It's as tactful a dressing down as you're ever going to read. It's polite and it excludes Johnson from real leadership responsibilities by including him in something much less important. What's even better, it gives Johnson a gig that he actually wants to do (see nos. 4 and 5).

And coordinate strategy...? There's a meaningless phrase if ever there was one! And yet it sounds important because it involves the GOP nominee. No one who has any clue how Washington really works would be bragging about this non-assignment to a reporter.

If Johnson thinks he's going to have a seat at the Romney strategy table this fall, he's in for a big surprise. In presidential election years, even Senators are nothing more than surrogates who either follow orders or don't get a ticket to the party. Shhhhhh! Don't tell Johnson this: it'll be much more fun when he finds this out the hard way this fall.

4.) Why the hell is Johnson answering these questions himself?

The playbook for stories about office dysfunction is pretty easy to run: the press secretary simply issues a statement dismissing the rumors as spurious and says that will be the last comment on the matter. The end. Johnson actually goes on the record here, which means if he does end up sacking any of his staffers in the near future he gets caught lying ... about firing people. That's a pretty silly thing to do when part of your messaging strategy is tying the President to unemployment.

Johnson's insistence on taking questions can mean one of two things: The first is that his staff thinks so little of him that they're willing to put him in a potentially damaging situation just to screw with him. The second is that Johnson thinks so little of his staff that he doesn't think they're competent enough to handle even the simplest of damage control chores. Either way, the office looks bad, and since no one's apparently leaving any time soon the problem is likely to persist.

5.) Johnson's delusional about his messaging skills. Johnson claims he wants to focus more of his office's attention on messaging, but that's really all he did last year in lieu of actual legislative activity:
Sources indicated that when Johnson came to Washington, he put a staff together like “any other Senator” but quickly realized that the day-to-day grind of legislating was not his forte. Johnson said last week that he wanted more of his office’s focus to be on building an effective messaging operation. Johnson’s legislative director, Robert Duncan, has already left the office.
Jesus, that's a damning indictment.

The problem is that Johnson is terrible at messaging. Just look at some of his greatest hits from last year. The very first thing Johnson did in January was take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and announce his America's Choice program. Any idea what that was all about? No? Exactly. It was a substance-free messaging strategy designed to drive the national conversation during an election year. Did it work? Well, if you're just learning about it from this web site, then no, of course it didn't work.

Successful messengers are able to connect with media folk. If Johnson can't connect with his GOP colleagues, who are naturally disposed to sympathize with him, then he will have no prayer with the media, who are naturally disposed to treat men in power, like himself, with deep skepticism.

Johnson's desire to get more pub shouldn't come as a surprise to any Wisconsin voter. This is precisely what he was referring to during the 2010 campaign when he "committed himself to a 're-education of America.'" But Johnson confuses "messaging" (or possibly "re-education") with the rote recitation of talking points that demonstrate his depth of understanding on any issue is shallow at best. (See, for example, his "debate" over Obamacare with Zeke Emmanuel on Morning Joe in which he seems convinced that the length alone is an a priori proof that its absurdity.)

6.) Johnson is making the wrong friends.
Still, Johnson also has high-profile backers in GOP campaign circles. Foster Friess, the billionaire who until recently was a major backer of the presidential campaign of former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), told FOX News on Wednesday that Johnson should be on GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney’s short list of vice presidential candidates.
Now this graph is an example of how something's absurdity is self-evident.


So what's it all mean? It means that Ron Johnson is being marginalized by his own party and doesn't even realize it. He's being pushed aside  by the party leadership where his voice will only be heard by the GOP fringe. Oh, he'll still get these silly puff pieces in conservative rags, and jokes like Freisse will talk him up like he's the Second Coming, but the reality is that Johnson is rapidly becoming one of the least effective members of the Senate.

It means his political career is essentially over. His awful first year has given him a well-earned reputation as someone who just doesn't understand how to play the game and is unwilling or unable to learn. Sooner or later, even the sycophants will stop kissing his ring and start ignoring him all together because they'll understand one important thing:

Ron Johnson is a lame duck Senator, effective today.

Johnson has no hope of winning a second term. Eventually, even he will realize this and just opt out of re-election. Or, and what's more likely, he'll just grow tired of being a Senator and choose not to bother.

But here's a third option: Johnson has essentially staked his career on the failure of Obamacare, though he's done little more, so far as we can tell, than a segment on Morning Joe denouncing it. If the Supreme Court does strike down ACA, there's little reason for him to hang around the U.S. Senate. Don't be surprised if Johnson resigns before the end of his term, especially if there's an opportunity for a Republican governor to appoint another Republican to fill the remainder of his term.  It would be a fitting end to what's proving to be a completely wasted Senate term.

1 comment:

Lester Freamon said...

Governors don't appoint Senators in Wisconsin. Vacant seats are filled by special elections.