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Obama’s focus on Wisconsin reflects national political strategy

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Arthur I. Cyr
February 21, 2012

“Manufacturing is coming back,” President Barack Obama declared last week at a Master Lock plant in Milwaukee. Actually, the U.S. remains one of the principal manufacturing powers on the planet, but this trip was designed to help win November elections, not provide an economics lecture.


Wisconsin is a priority for both parties in politics and policy. In January 2011, the president visited Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc the day after the State of the Union speech. In July 2010, he held a lively town hall meeting in Racine, an area with long-term economic problems.


President Obama consistently emphasizes traditional Democratic Party themes of aiding workers. In exchanges with citizens, he argues unemployment would be even higher without the enormous federal stimulus.


Obama carried the state by a comfortable margin in 2008, but Republicans won in 2010. Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Janesville is becoming a steadily more influential point person for a dramatically contrasting conservative vision of the economy.


A year ago, Ryan delivered the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union address. Picking him for this role underscored Wisconsin’s importance for both parties and also this particular rising politician’s seriousness and influence as a policy advocate.


Southeast Wisconsin’s Ryan has earned a solid reputation for effective economic analysis and specific federal budget proposals. In our electronic age, where policy complexities are reduced to TV sound bites, Ryan is old-school serious in approach.


Voters here traditionally elect congressional representatives noted for specific sustained policy priorities. Long-term Democratic Congressman Les Aspin was thoroughly expert on defense.


Democrat Peter Barca succeeded Aspin for a time, and both before and since has been elected to the state Legislature. Barca throughout his career has been a knowledgeable advocate for disabled children and has become increasingly prominent in state politics.


Wisconsin remains a lynchpin for Democratic election strategists. The state went for Vice President Al Gore over Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 by 4,000 votes, for Sen. John Kerry over President Bush in 2004 by 12,000, but for Obama over Sen. John McCain by more than 400,000 votes. Obama won 56.2 percent of the state’s presidential vote.


In 2008, Obama won the White House without a Southern running mate, the only time since World War II the Democrats have been victorious without that region represented either on the top of the ticket or by the nominee for vice president. Obama’s victory indirectly upended Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which brought that region into the Republican fold.


In practical politics, the only kind that counts, this more conservative Republican Party has provided new openings for Democrats in the North, in particular among suburban women voters.


Office seekers be aware, or be sorry.


Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Readers can contact him by email at acyr@carthage.edu.

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