Scott Andersen, a retired banker with M and I Bank, was reading in the Waupaca public library. He had been responsible for credit administration for northern Wisconsin before he retired by choice two years ago, after a thirty-year career with the bank. He got out of the business right before the recession hit. “You’re seeing a tide to put business people back in Congress. I think there’s a general push to put non-career politicians back in office.”
“Russ has been a politician all his life,” he said. “I think it will be a tough race. I’m basically a Republican and will vote for Johnson.”
Andersen said he wasn’t a big believer in big government or government interference. But the honesty and truthfulness problem surrounding this year’s crop of candidates popped up. “Russ says ‘I create jobs,’ but politicians don’t create jobs. Small businesses and businesses create jobs. Politicians can make the requirements more friendly,” he explained. And as a businessman, he did like friendly regulations. Feingold’s talk would be a “negative for me.” Andersen added. “I don’t like that kind of terminology.”
At a thrift shop in Waukesha, seventy-year-old Jean Coshun who was volunteering told me she had thought Feingold was going to be good. “But he hasn’t been. I just think he is a hypocrite because of the way he votes.” Another volunteer, Joan MacGregor, agreed. She said she liked Ron Johnson because he is a “genuine American.” “I think it’s time we got rid of suave and debonair politicians. Feingold is smooth. The minute he opens his mouth I tune out. He’s too smooth for me.”
I asked MacGregor to explain what she meant by smooth politicians. “I like it when they stumble over their words,” she said. “That indicates they are on the same plane with me.” In other words, she seemed to be saying, she didn’t care for pols who talked down to the voters. The fact Obama used a teleprompter for his speeches bothered her. “He has to have everything printed out. He cannot give a speech without the prompter.” MacGregor said she was a Republican from Chicago and had little use for politicians from there like Obama. “He has no experience for this type of job.”
I couldn’t help relate all this talk about honesty to a series periodically running in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel examining the truthfulness of local political advertising, including Feingold’s. While I was in the state, the paper examined Feingold’s claim that “I’ve been outspent by my opponents every time I’ve run for the U.S. Senate,” which the senator has used or a variation of it several times on the campaign trail. The Journal Sentinel looked at campaign spending numbers and found:
Though that (the claim) is true in two races, he uses some twisted logic—and math—to get there on the third, tallying up spending by Republican primary candidates he never faced to obscure that he vastly outspent the one he did.
Maybe fact checks like the Journal Sentinel’s are beginning to color voters’ opinions. On one level, that’s what these truth squads are supposed to do. On another, they may be creating vague, general impressions among voters who may not have read all the fine print. In politics, though, impressions matter more than the details.