Local Grassroots Group Vets Ron Johnson, Part 1: Oops-a-Daisy!

On Friday, June 11th, Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson appeared before a local conservative grassroots group, the Rock River Patriots. The group has a reputation for tough questioning. They didn’t waver on this occasion. Regardless of where you come down on the questions they asked Johnson, you have to give them credit: They know the Constitution backwards and forwards—and they have an excellent grasp of constitutional principles in relationship to the issues.

You have to hand it to the Rock River Patriots for a second reason. They’re doing what most of us have failed to do for decades. They’re truly vetting candidates. They’re not settling for surface information like campaign literature, stump speeches, and t.v. ads. No, they’re digging in to uncover who and what each candidate really is on a variety of levels. And in posting video of their efforts, they’re performing a huge service for voters across the state. We can now all see the fruits of these sessions quite easily, simply by visiting a website.

Candidates usually stay at these sessions as long as attendees have questions. Dave Westlake, visiting the same group last winter, has reported spending four hours facing their non-stop fire. Members of the group tell me that they’ve never once had a candidate unwilling to stay until all questions were asked and answered…until Ron Johnson, that is.

The vetting session with Ron Johnson ended up going so poorly for the candidate in key respects that his campaign staff put a stop to the questioning. In segment five of the video, well under 40 minutes into the session, the handler informs the group’s leader—who subsequently informs the group—that Johnson will answer only one further question.

Talking points or coincidence?

Johnson started out with a full eight and a half minutes of personal introduction. Less then two minutes in, he says something that might seem completely innocuous to anyone not paying close attention: “I realize I just received the endorsement from the Republican Party. I will say I was as surprised as anybody about that. But I do want to say that I view that more as an endorsement of my message.”

Why does this little snippet raise my eyebrow? Two reasons.

On Wednesday, May 26th, just days after the state GOP convention had concluded, the Wisconsin State Journal published an article on the party’s [use skeptical tone here] “surprise” endorsement of Johnson. Near the end, Reince Priebus, Chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, asserts: “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the race for two years or two months. This proves it’s about the right message and the right candidate.”

It sounds suspiciously like Priebus and Johnson are repeating talking points.

One could, I suppose, chalk the similar language up to sheer coinkydink.

Except for reason number two: What message?  I don’t think talking points count.

It’s been clear from the very beginning to anyone paying attention that Ron Johnson hasn’t yet got a message and doesn’t seem in a hurry to develop one—beyond the catch-word “Freedom.” Doubt me…? The Rock River Patriots video is right at the top of a mounting pile of proof.

All questions were asked by individuals actually in the room for the vetting session.

What makes you think you’re the person that can beat Russ Feingold?

RoJo’s summary response? To paraphrase: “I’m a manufacturer. We’re losing manufacturing jobs. We’re facing fiscal crisis. I’m comfortable with budgets, spreadsheets, and numbers.”

The question Ron actually ended up answering was the vetting equivalent of “What do you want to be when you grow up?”—that being, “Why do you think you’d make a good senator right now?”

Unfortunately, RoJo didn’t even touch the answer to the question actually posed. He didn’t talk about strategy. He didn’t say a thing about how he’s going to win the confidence of independents, who have historically voted for Feingold. He didn’t broach how he might capture disillusioned Democrats. He didn’t hint at how he’s going to counteract the rich white guy image that Russ is bound to leverage against him. He didn’t mention where, how, or why he’d attack Feingold’s record.

THAT is information that would suggest a coherent campaign strategy reflective of planning and understanding in relationship to—what was the question again—oh yeah, beating Feingold. Such answers would also provide a window onto a longer-term agenda that seriously considers how not only to win voters over but, every bit as importantly, how to keep their trust beyond election day.

Instead, RoJo admits throughout the session that he knows what a difficult race it will be but that, as of yet, he has no real sense of how he’s going to pull this thing off.

Bear in mind that Johnson, by his own admission, dickered about getting in this race for several months. If he can’t articulate something this foundational to his own campaign a full month or more after his formal announcement, precisely when will he be able to do so?

In Your Opinion, What’s the Role of the Federal Government

Here RoJo quickly stepped in a pile of his own poopy. And it’s going to stink him up but good for those hoping to get away from run-of-the-mill, moderate Republicans—the kind that Feingold repeatedly slaughters at the polls.

He begins by saying he “thinks” the government’s role is “pretty well defined in the Constitution,” that its first responsibility is national defense. Tentative, but not a bad start.

Just thereafter, he puts his foot in it: “But also, I’m not reflexively anti-government…I want the government to have smart and effective regulation to make sure the free market continues to operate properly. I don’t want to see large companies with monopolistic practices. I think we should invoke anti-trust regulation so that— If there’s ever a business that’s termed too big to fail, regulation has already failed. We shouldn’t allow businesses to accumulate each other and merge to the point where they get too large to fail.”

Uh oh…

Let me get this straight: Ron Johnson, entrepreneur and millionaire, wants someone else to tell him when his company’s gotten too big? He’d really appreciate it if the government told him he couldn’t buy another company in order to expand or innovate? Or is it that—like so many in Washington—RoJo thinks those kinds of rules wouldn’t apply to him?

Ronny sounds suspiciously like a progressive—not a conservative.

I wonder what his definition of “too big” is? Do you think he has one yet? Or is he waiting for the rest of the establishment in Washington to define it for him? Perhaps he’s malleable on that point, and it depends on circumstances.

Conservatives are not, generally speaking, big believers in government regulation as a means of ensuring the proper “operation” of the free market. In fact, that’s one of the teeny-tiny little blunders about which they’re still ticked at George W. Bush—“abandoning free-market principles to save the free-market system.” That muck just doesn’t wash.

Conservatives know what Adam Smith reasoned back in the 18th Century—that self-interest ain’t all bad. In fact, it fuels a free-market system of exchange that works better, provides more opportunity, and yields more prosperity than any other option. Here’s the real bee in the bonnet for progressives: It also strangely results in more generosity. Where government has attempted to “ensure proper operation,” it has tended to undermine the free market and destroy all of its highly desirable fruits.

Conservatives know what Russian analyst Nikolai Kondratiev (fatally) told Stalin in the 1920s—what Dutchmen Jacob van Gelderen and Samuel de Wolff, in fact, knew as early as 1913: The free market cycles naturally through the equivalent of spring, summer, fall, and winter—over and over and over again—regardless of government attempts to “fix” it. Right now, we are heading into winter…a very, very harsh one indeed. One of the reasons it will be so harsh—and that we, in fact, risk not recovering this time—is precisely because of government intervention. We are repeating blow for blow the mistakes of FDR’s administration, except the stakes are far higher this time.

Conservatives also know what individuals such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have so convincingly demonstrated through their respective works: that when the government gets out of the way, the free market takes care of itself—even self-corrects for errors and excesses. Let’s face it: We cannot avoid a harsh winter now. It is coming, whether we like it or not. But there are ways to mitigate its effects—by keeping government intervention out of the equation.

Johnson must have skipped the Cliff’s Notes for all of this stuff. Or maybe his handlers just haven’t shared it with him yet.

He did backtrack, saying he thinks government has far overstepped its bounds and needs to be more limited in scope. But how exactly do you limit the intrusion of government into your life when you ascribe to it the power to determine how big your business should or shouldn’t be—what you can and can’t do? That’s more than sliding down a slippery slope. That’s dangling off a high, jutting cliff by a single fingernail [insert whistling sound of someone falling and a loud splat here].

Huh. Now that I think about it, maybe RoJo is the guy to beat Feingold. But perhaps he’s running on the wrong ticket.

Do you think the 4th Amendment provides some challenges to the income tax system?

Johnson had to be nudged by someone in the audience as to the basic content of the 4th Amendment before he could come up with an answer. His excuse? (you’ll hear it peppering the entire 45-minute session) “I’m not a constitutional scholar.” No one was asking him to be. But it seems reasonable that he should know the content of the document he’ll be sworn to uphold if elected.

Once reminded, Johnson gets quite excited about personal property rights and how wonderful they are—though he never quite ties his thoughts back to the question he was asked. He also says, “Freedom is really economic freedom—to a great extent.”

Well, there’s an interesting quandary… How, exactly, does RoJo’s exuberant embrace of personal property rights and economic freedom square with his previous assertion that government should have the power to limit business? Or doesn’t he view a business—or any of the various forms of ownership in one—as personal property and economic freedom? Perhaps he ought to think these connections through to a logical conclusion as others of us have done.

Think you’ve heard it all? Not by a long shot. RoJo provided plenty more disturbing material.

Tune in for Part 2 tomorrow…

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