Facts and fantasy collide in Wisconsin’s Senate debate

October 8, 2022 7:00 am
Wisconsin Senate candidates Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) and Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes in met for their first debate in Milwaukee on Oct. 7, sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association | Screenshot via YouTube

Wisconsin Senate candidates Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) and Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes in their first debate in Milwaukee on Oct. 7, sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association | Screenshot via YouTube

The flurry of one-minute answers during Friday night’s U.S. Senate candidate debate are unlikely to change many voters’ minds.

There was Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in his dark blue suit and white hair looking senatorial as he glibly explained that the government is wasting money on silly climate change initiatives and reassuring voters that, despite his many published comments to the contrary, he wants to “save” Social Security and Medicare.

There was his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, looking young and a little nervous in his open-collar shirt and no tie, saying that he doesn’t mind the recent barrage of attack ads calling him “different” since, as someone who grew up in a working class family, he would be a different kind of senator from millionaires like Johnson.

Barnes came armed with a lot of facts, including Johnson’s description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” his support for overturning Roe v. Wade, his praise of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, which, Barnes pointed out, runs counter to his posture as a big supporter of the police — as do his repeated votes against funding for local police departments.

But somehow Johnson manages to let these factual attacks roll off. Part of his secret is that he seems totally at ease, whether he’s blaming climate change on sun spots or talking about the the COVID-19 vaccine killing people or, in Friday night’s debate, explaining that Roe v. Wade caused 40 years of controversy over abortion and now that it’s been overturned things will be more peaceful.

The debate wasn’t a great forum for showcasing Barnes’ strengths. It went by too quickly, with too many facts stuffed into a short time slot. There was no time for rebuttal and no deeper discussion of the issues, which Barnes knows well.

For people who already know that Johnson has praised the Jan. 6 rioters, voted repeatedly for a nationwide no-exceptions abortion ban and has said he wants Social Security to be subject to cuts every year as one of many discretionary spending measures, instead of being protected as an entitlement, it was satisfying to hear Barnes review the record. But that review was on fast forward in the quick debate format.

Johnson, in his answers, seemed less pressed for time, in part because he didn’t have many facts to marshal. He just batted away the public record. On abortion he made his views sound reasonable: He’s for a referendum, so voters can decide under what circumstances they think abortion should be legal. A majority of Wisconsinites opposed overturning Roe v. Wade and, given the chance, would amend our state’s draconian 19th century abortion ban. But Johnson knows that there’s no danger the public will get the chance to weigh in, because the Republicans who control the Legislature refused to take up Evers’ call for a special session to create the very referendum process Johnson claims to favor.

Likewise, Johnson said he sees no reason to pass a law recognizing same sex marriage, because “stare decisis is very powerful” and the U.S. Supreme Court that just overturned Roe v. Wade surely won’t overturn a more recent precedent recognizing same-sex couples.

Say what?

No matter how nonsensical, Johnson’s bland reassurances appear to have a lulling effect.

Consider the recent poll showing that a majority of older Wisconsin voters rank protecting Social Security and Medicare as their highest priorities — and also plan to vote for Johnson.

Asked about addressing mass shootings, Johnson assured debate viewers that “more gun control laws just won’t work.”

He claimed, falsely, to have repeatedly condemned the Jan. 6 insurrection and said he didn’t know that those fake Trump ballots were in the package he tried to deliver to the vice president. And he pivoted from a question about the violent Capitol insurrection to Black Lives Matter protests, drawing a false equivalency between the pro-Trump rioters who attacked Capitol police officers as they sought to “hang Mike Pence” and the mostly peaceful protests of police shootings of Black people across the country in the summer of 2020. Most egregiously, Johnson repeated his discredited claim that Barnes “incited” a riot in Kenosha, when he held a press conference after the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake.

That accusation was a softer version of some of the ads that have been not so subtly displaying Barnes’ picture, with his skin darkened, alongside mugshots of criminals.

Johnson’s ability to disconnect from reality, as when he denies public positions he has taken, leaves his opponents almost overwhelmed. Where do you even start?

It’s hard to forget the debates of 2010 and 2016 in which Johnson faced Russ Feingold, a constitutional law scholar and one of the brightest lights in the U.S. Senate. Watching them, it seemed like Feingold would win in a cake walk.

Now Johnson is up against Barnes, a charismatic, progressive young candidate who supports student loan debt relief (which the millionaire Johnson calls “unfair”), who led a task force on cleaning up the state’s drinking water (which Johnson claims the government can’t afford to fund because of its wrongheaded focus on climate change), who has an ambitious green jobs plan, a detailed understanding of the struggles of rural Wisconsin and a sophisticated take on public safety that includes better policing, reducing gun violence and ending mass incarceration. But Barnes is lagging in the polls after a barrage of racist attack ads.

In the debate, in answer to a question on outsourcing (which Johnson says is not a problem), Barnes talked about how workers in Milwaukee suffered when manufacturing shut down. Johnson talked about a church program he’s involved in that helps Black youth develop a “better attitude.”

That’s the difference between the candidates in a nutshell.

The race is unfolding against the threat that we are about to lose our democracy to the insurrectionists and election deniers Johnson has enabled.

Perhaps part of the Johnson appeal is that he waves away all those threats. Don’t worry about climate change or fascism. All you need is a good attitude, and the confidence that goes with it, which looks good on TV.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.