Notes from Thursday Night's Debate
When I walked into the hall at the Country Springs Hotel to cover the debate between Kevin Nicholson and state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield), I got asked by one of the other members of the media what I thought was going to happen at the debate. Using all of the accumulated wisdom of years of writing about Wisconsin politics, I laughed and said nothing is going to happen.
And I was right for about an hour.
I don't want to belabor the ending of the debate since I wrote about it at length for the RightWisconsin website. If you want a blow-by-blow account, complete with a conversation with Dan O'Donnell afterward, reading that article would be a good start. So would reading the Tweets from last night and the MacIver Institute's coverage.
But there are a couple of points in the debate worth talking about, and we might as well start with the end first, which means we have to address Nicholson saying that his service in Iraq and Afghanistan is all the conservative credentials anyone should ever need from him. He's not the first to make that statement on his behalf.
I have said before and I still believe that Nicholson has an interesting story when he says his military experience contributed to his becoming a conservative. But while that may be his personal story, it's certainly not the story of every person who has served in the military. For example, my father-in-law served in the Marines and is very proud of his service, and our whole family is proud of him. But his service in the Marines doesn't change the fact that my father-in-law has never voted for a Republican, and he won't be voting for Nicholson, either.
We can run down the list. Does former Secretary of State John Kerry's service in Vietnam exempt him from conservative criticism going forward? Because it never has in the past. Former Vice President Al Gore was in Vietnam, too. George McGovern, the liberal icon, fought in World War II. President Jimmy Carter served in the Navy on submarines. Walter Mondale was in the Army. And so on.
So when Nicholson tells the story of his military service, we can draw all sorts of conclusions about his character but it's not proof of a political philosophy. His personal story of conversion is just that, a personal story. It's up to the voters to decide whether to believe and trust him.
And that may be why there is so much palpable tension between the two campaigns, it's a conflict of personal narratives. Nicholson's whole campaign is his personal story because we have no political track record to judge. To question Nicholson's campaign for Senate is to actually question him personally. It may be even more personal to him given Nicholson's family drama.
On the flip side, Nicholson's whole outsider theme, including talking about a "Madison swamp," is a direct personal attack on Vukmir's personal history. It would be different if Nicholson disagreed with Vukmir on a policy position, but he's saying that his personal story (with no experience in GOP politics) is better than Vukmir's long history of fighting for conservative causes. When the difference is biographical rather than substantive, then, of course, it's going to be personal.
A few more thoughts:
- Nicholson praised the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty for their work on behalf of Professor John McAdams and (correctly) criticized those in the business community like MMAC who have taken the side of Marquette University. Interestingly, McAdams has endorsed Vukmir for Senate.
- Contrary to what Nicholson said, while some in Wisconsin have been hurt by free trade agreements, overall Wisconsin benefits from free trade. That's especially true in agriculture.
- Vukmir is wrong, too, on trade. While President Donald Trump may paint himself as a master negotiator on trade, the price of steel is going up as so many of us free traders predicted. As a result, Wisconsin manufacturing costs and construction costs will go up.
- Nicholson says an outsider is needed, and Wisconsin Republicans knew that when they voted for Trump. Except, Wisconsin Republicans didn't vote for Trump. They voted for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the Republican presidential primary in 2016 and not out of any special love for him. It was the result of a strong dislike of Trump. Wisconsin voted for Trump in the November election, but his vote total trailed behind Sen. Ron Johnson's vote total. Trump won Wisconsin because Hillary Clinton was the alternative. She's not on the ballot this fall.
- Will Nicholson or Vukmir flip on the gas tax if the planned infrastructure bill includes it because Trump needs a funding source for his spending?