David Michael Miller
Last week former Janesville state Sen. Tim Cullen, in a surprise move, announced that he had abandoned his flirtation with running for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Cullen joins a growing list of Democrats who are taking a pass on taking on Republican Gov. Scott Walker, despite Walker’s continuing mediocre poll numbers. The governor’s approval ratings have been stuck in the low to mid-forties for a couple of years.
But Cullen’s reason for not running rings a little hollow. He said that he had discovered that he would need to spend an inordinate amount of time begging for money and he found that “demeaning.”
Demeaning struck me as off somehow, so I looked it up. The definition is to lose one’s dignity and the respect of others. Cullen is a fine man, but he has also been a politician most of his life. In the public eye is it possible for any politician to lose his dignity and their respect? Doesn’t a profession have to possess these traits before they can be lost?
He’s right, of course, about it being demeaning, even if that wasn’t the best word to use. I’ve called people to raise money; it’s just awful. But what is odd about Cullen saying that after spending several months inching closer to jumping into the race is that he should have known the nature of the business from the start. After all, Cullen had served as Senate majority leader from 1981 to 1987, where raising lots of money for Senate races was part of the job description. And even if he had not been in that role in a couple of decades, he had just recently served another one-term stint as a senator, choosing not to run for reelection in 2014. He had to know what politics had become.
It’s just hard to accept that a pol as seasoned as Cullen didn’t realize at the outset of his gubernatorial exploration that he’d have to spend a lot of time dialing for dollars once he had jumped in. I suppose it is possible that he just decided he didn’t want to do it once he came face-to-face with the ugly reality.
Or he may have looked at the prospects for success and decided that they were too slim. Cullen, after all, is a deal-maker and an aisle-crosser. He left the Senate the first time to take a job in Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson’s cabinet. The art of compromise and the spirit of bipartisanship are not valued political assets in either party these days. Cullen, though highly skilled, just never seemed like the kind of candidate who would strike the right note for the times.
Partisans right now don’t seem to want somebody who knows how to do the political wrench work; they want someone who wants to throw a monkey wrench into the works.
But, still, I wish Cullen had decided to go for it anyway. I wish he had said, “To hell with the money. To hell with the hyper-partisanship. I’m going to run as the bipartisan guy I am, and if Democrats don’t like it, well, they can nominate somebody else.”
I have a hunch that what voters are looking for right now is less ideological purity than a sense of authenticity. A candidate who would start out saying things that were clearly not focus-grouped and polled to death, a candidate who said things that weren’t in his self-interest, just might gain the curiosity, if not the respect, of voters.
If there’s one thing that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders share it’s that neither sounds like a typical politician. Language matters. Rather than a candidate who said that begging for money was demeaning and so he wouldn’t run, what might work is a candidate who said crawling to donors was “B.S.” and yet he was, what the hell, running anyway.