Saturday, June 1, 2013

Ron Johnson's "Victims of Government" Project goes from Bad to Trainwreck

In late March, Senator Ron Johnson rolled out his Victims of Government project. Presumably, the point of the whole affair was to highlight the ways "big government" interferes with lives average, everyday Americans. The project was not popular with several local editorial boards. We honestly expected Johnson to just let the matter die a quiet death, like his earlier America's Choice initiative, and just hope people forgot about it. That probably would have been the smart thing to do, in any event.

So, naturally, that's not what happened.

Regardless of what we may think of the overall value of the endeavor (which is to say, not much), Johnson's first story out of the gate seemed to perfectly illustrate a kind of Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare "that could happen to anyone!" It was a compelling story that featured an apolitical Everyman fighting "the system." The only real draw-back was that the example was so egregious that even Democrats, or at least Sen. Claire McCaskill, didn't disagree with him. It was actually a tough act to follow.

Johnson claimed that his office has been receiving similar stories from average Americans since he launched the project, makes the second installment of the VoG project odd in so far as it comes straight from the headlines:

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson's latest "victim of government," Catherine Engelbrecht, says her group's involvement against the Scott Walker recall effort prompted a backlash from the IRS, which is conducting a a lengthy review of her applications for tax-exempt status for tea party groups she founded.

The Root River Siren has the details why Englebrecht isn't exactly an innocent naif in her dealings with the IRS, but just consider the optics of Johnson's decision to highlight the plight of a fellow conservative politician for a moment: if Johnson had hoped that this project would give a voice to the voiceless he has abdicated that aim by taking up the cause of a fellow partisan in what is unquestionably a political fight. Englebrecht is a professional politician complaining about the role politics played in a political decision -- not exactly an easy person to relate to or sympathize with.

Making matters more ridiculous is that Johnson's video taking up Englebrecht's cause was paid for by his Senate office. Last time around, several newspapers took issue with the inherent contradictions between government money being spent to promote a message that government is a problem. This time around, Johnson's office is spending money for a clear political end. There's actually a case to be made, however technical, that Johnson is abusing his office by jumping into this very political fight ... which is ironic considering that's what he's accusing the IRS of doing in the video.

This is amateur hour political messaging -- real bush league stuff. It's bad enough that Johnson & Co. decided to continue with a program that he was roundly criticized for, but to do so this ineptly is really rather remarkable. I mean, given the number of people who were involved with the creation of this video, from conception to final product, how could no one stop and think that this was a probably an unwise idea? The answer to that question probably goes a long way to explain why Johnson's office is so horrible at promoting his message. This is a considerable problem considering that messaging and "educating the public" are pretty much all that Johnson does.