The other day I got an urgent call from a campaign staffer for Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate for governor. It seems that a spokeswoman for Scott Walker, one of Barrett's Republican rivals for the state's top job, retweeted a tweet from another Walker campaign official that linked to a YouTube video of dancing blacks, in a song about a train, apropos of Walker's opposition to high-speed rail. The spokeswoman claimed she linked to the video by mistake. Barrett's backers scoffed at this.
"At best, it is tasteless and needlessly provocative," intoned Stephanie Findley, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's Black Caucus. "At worst, it recalls the coded racial program of division that has been exploited in the past. In either case, Scott Walker must apologize."
The Walker camp did apologize for the tweet, which got the spokeswoman, Jill Bader, branded the day's "worst person in the world" by Keith Olbermann on his MSNBC show. Barrett himself joined in the finger-wagging, refusing to accept that the link was not a deliberate appeal to bigotry.
"There are a lot of serious problems that we face in this country, and there's a lot of serious problems that we face in this state, and that's what I want to focus on," he deadpanned in an interview with WTMJ in Milwaukee. "This is sort of sophomoric stuff."
What a bunch of rot.
Of course Tom Barrett, like most politicians, would rather focus on the sophomoric stuff - the "nontroversies," as some have called them - than real issues. That's why he has his campaign staff trying to blow inane tweets into major to-dos.
Walker's campaign is just as mired in muck, branding Barrett a liar and environmental scofflaw. Both campaigns accuse the other candidate of being willing to "say anything" to get elected; in that, both are correct.
An expert quoted in a recent Wisconsin State Journal story, borrowing a term popularized by then-candidate Barack Obama, referred to this sort of campaign activity as "the silly season of politics." But there's nothing silly about it. The races for governor, U.S. Senate and other key posts could hinge on such undignified sniping.
That's because the candidates for these offices are convinced, perhaps with good reason, that many of the state's voters are stupid.
Take Russ Feingold, the Democrat who has ably represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate for the past 18 years. Polls show him running neck-and-neck with political neophyte Ron Johnson, the GOP frontrunner, even though most voters have no idea what Johnson stands for.
And so Feingold is running scared, spending his wads of cash on ads aimed at taking Johnson down a few notches. Feingold has charged, unjustly, that Johnson favors opening the Great Lakes to oil drilling; Johnson has made the same false claim about Feingold. And Feingold, in a radio ad, has turned Johnson's tepid expression of support for low-level regulation of firearms into a suggestion that he would make gun owners "wait in line at the DMV to get a license for your constitutional rights and freedoms."
Russ Feingold knows no such thing is going to happen. Yet like other politicians, he's pulling out all the stops, and even the scruples, because that's what he feels he must do to get elected. He's like a modern-day Adlai Stevenson; he has the support of every rational person in the state but knows that's not enough. He needs a majority.
But in stooping to this level, Feingold is jeopardizing his most precious political asset: his integrity. Here is a man who has honored Wisconsin time and again by taking stands on principle; now he seems to accept the need to play gutter politics in order to win.
Who's to blame? The candidates, of course. But also the voters to whom these messages are directed: people so pathetically uninformed and undiscerning as to be influenced by them.
In fact, shallow, barely aware voters have become the most important players in our democracy. It is for their sake that candidates debase themselves with shameless appeals to ignorance.
If you vote for Tom Barrett because you think Scott Walker gleefully employs racists at the highest levels of his campaign, you're stupid, and shouldn't be voting. If you vote for Russ Feingold because you think Ron Johnson will make it even slightly harder for you to kill animals and people with barely regulated deadly weapons, you're stupid. And if you believe either will wave in BP to drill for oil in Lake Michigan, you're stupid.
And the candidates are doing everything they can to earn your vote.
Bill Lueders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is news editor of Isthmus. His new book, Watchdog: 25 Years of Muckraking and Rabblerousing, will be published next month.