The battle for Wisconsin

As Democrats nominate Biden in Milwaukee, the Trump campaign launches its counteroffensive

Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images
Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

“I did hear the Democrats were supposed to have their national convention in Wisconsin — but they couldn’t make it,” Vice President Mike Pence said tauntingly Wednesday at a rally outside a manufacturing plant in Darien.

Mike Pence at his rally in Darien, Wis. (Screenshot from Youtube)
Mike Pence at his rally in Darien, Wis. (Screenshot from Youtube)

Pence was the third member of the Trump campaign to show up this week to rub salt in the wounds of Democrats who were looking forward to holding their political convention in Milwaukee, only to have the whole thing moved online because of the public health threat of the pandemic. 

You have to hand it to the Trump team, they have the natural political instincts of a bully.

“Where the other side’s online, we’re gonna be on the streets in the Badger State,” Pence declared. 

President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Oshkosh on Monday, and Eric Trump’s meeting with Milwaukee police on Tuesday, were just the beginning, apparently.

Biden is ahead of Trump in Wisconsin by five points in the latest polls. Both sides know they need to turn out voters here, where Trump won by just 22,748 votes in 2016.

But Biden hasn’t been to Wisconsin for 260 days, Pence told the crowd in Darien. “In fact, the last time you saw a Democrat nominee for president in the Badger State was back in 2012,” Pence added. “Well I’m here to tell you, get used to seeing us, because President Donald Trump and I are going to be back to Wisconsin again and again to earn four more years in the White House.”

The outlines of the battle in this battleground state are becoming clear. 

While speaker after speaker at the virtual DNC over the last few days described the terrible toll of the preventable deaths from coronavirus this administration failed to stop, the divisiveness and racism Trump has stirred up, the economic disaster befalling families who are not getting enough help during the pandemic-induced downturn, the damage done by climate change and gun violence — the Republican message is “Don’t worry, be happy.”

The economy is “roaring back” Pence claimed — “It’s been three and a half years of action, three and a half years of results … three and a half years of jobs jobs jobs,” he told the crowd in Darien.

Can the Trump campaign actually convince voters in the Midwest that times are good? It seems hard to believe given current conditions.

But Americans do like to look on the bright side. Even, or maybe especially, as they confront a dark future with a vacuum in leadership that is creating chaos and uncertainty. Denial has broad popular appeal.

While the Democrats’ virtual reality convention has been heavy on depressing reality, the Republicans are offering the siren song of an upbeat, alternative reality for people who would just as soon check out.

It’s not at all clear which approach will win.

I found it interesting that Pence’s biggest applause line came when he talked about reopening schools.

“The great American comeback is on. We’re opening up again. We’re opening up safely and responsibly,” he told the cheering, unmasked crowd. “And as we open up America, we’re opening up America’s schools, getting our kids back in the classroom.”  The crowd roared.

Apparently a lot of people want someone to tell them the pandemic is over and it’s time to get the kids back to class. As a parent of three disappointed online students, I get it. The same day Pence gave his speech, I bumped into two neighbors who are sending their kids to private schools and who are thrilled that classes will begin in person for them again next week.

The Democrats are taking a gamble by spending their convention talking about the thorny, miserable problems we face. People are yearning for some good news. Even if it’s fake good news.

The two parties have changed positions from four years ago, when Trump stirred up the angry, aggrieved, half-empty convention hall in Cleveland, and the Democrats put on their upbeat, multicultural jam session in Philadelphia.

At the time I thought the Republicans were sure to lose. The crowd in Cleveland was so thin you could see rows of empty seats in the convention hall. The music — all country — was awful. And remember Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech? The Trump campaign did not look like a winning team. Republican Gov. John Kasich, who spoke at the Democratic convention this year, refused to appear at his own party’s convention in 2016. The writing was on the wall, it seemed.

But, as it turned out, the anger and disillusionment and pure racist hate Trump tapped into, and the disaffection of nonvoters who might have helped defeat him, delivered us into this nightmare reality.

Hillary Clinton summed it up perfectly on Wednesday night: “Remember in 2016 when Trump asked: ‘What do you have to lose?’ Well, now we know: our health, our jobs, even our lives. Our leadership in the world and, yes, our post office.”

Astoundingly, Pence referred to the “divisiveness” of the last few years (whose fault is that?) and said without irony that “there is more that unites us than will ever divide us.” 

The Republicans are projecting optimism based on lies. And the Democrats are delivering somber news and the slightly arduous-sounding slogan “build back better.”

Kamala Harris U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa.
Kamala Harris by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0

As Sen. Kamala Harris put it in her acceptance speech as Biden’s vice presidential pick on Wednesday night:  “The constant chaos leaves us adrift. The incompetence makes us feel afraid. The callousness makes us feel alone. It’s a lot.”

It sure is. Wednesday night began with Gabby Giffords’ wrenching story of recovering from being shot in the head at close range and recovering her ability to talk, moved on to children separated from their families at the border and segued to painful testimony from survivors of brutal domestic violence.

The Trump campaign’s offer to forget your cares and believe that things are great and getting better has a certain escapist appeal.

But the people in Wisconsin and other swing states who were stirred up by Trump’s smash-the-establishment message in 2016, and who are indeed hurting under global economic policies that stretch back over several administrations, are certainly not better off today.

As Barack Obama put it, speaking directly to people who are turned off by politics and disinclined to vote: “They are counting on your cynicism . . . that is how they win.” 

“Do not let them take away your power,” he added. “Do not let them take away your democracy.”

That’s what the Democrats, and all of us, are up against.