In politics as in life, the devil is often in the details. Luckily for Ron Johnson, he doesn't have any.
"I don't believe this election is about details," the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate declared at a recent campaign forum. It's not the first time Johnson has used this particular soundbite, for reasons that, on reflection, seem obvious.
Johnson doesn't like to discuss details because that would commit him to specific courses of action, the kind he would need to take to actually follow through on his broad, vague campaign promises. The Oshkosh businessman says he'll create jobs and cut the deficit. Why does anyone need to know more than that?
Consider Johnson's response to a reporter who asked how he would deliver on his promise to slash federal spending: "I'm not going to get in the game here and, you know, start naming specific things to be attacked about, quite honestly."
His position on foreign policy, a subject entirely absent from his website, is that U.S. senators should not have positions on such things. At least not publicly. How convenient.
While Feingold has run an ad lampooning Johnson and his supporters for engaging in excessive celebration, à la Randy Moss, the truer call is that Johnson is employing a "prevent defense." It's the equivalent of a cornerback who offers a wide receiver 10 yards of free range in the fourth quarter, sacrificing yardage to prevent a touchdown.
Johnson avoids contact with reporters and voters like the plague. He's canceled scheduled meetings with Tea Party groups, his supposed ideological brethren, who've questioned his positions. And the take no longer to read than one of his 30-second ads takes to watch.
In fact, whenever possible, Johnson avoids the issues altogether. He talks about his career in manufacturing and the time he spent baling hay as a youngster. He boasts that he's not a lawyer or politician, as though these are the last people anyone would want making laws and running the country. And he continually misrepresents himself as a "small businessman," because it is a status more voters can relate to than "multimillionaire."
Most of all, he waits. He waits in the shadows of GOP talking points and third-party attack ads, hoping to ride the national wave against incumbent Democrats to victory.
It's a dubious strategy that appears to be working, at least so far.
Most polls have shown Johnson with a sizable lead over Feingold, an 18-year Senate veteran. And despite one recent poll that showed Johnson's lead down to two percentage points, Nate Silver's prestigious FiveThirtyEight poll aggregator as of Oct. 24 put Johnson's chances of winning at 88.9%.
Johnson's chances hinge largely on those who don't vote. While the denizens of the Milwaukee suburbs - where Johnson leads by substantial margins - are headed to the polls in droves, key Democratic constituencies, including young people and racial minorities, are less enthusiastic.
The last thing Johnson wants to do is offer voters a glimpse into his far-right ideology. He doesn't want to explain what system he envisions to replace the "Ponzi scheme" he says Social Security has become. He doesn't want it known what his quest to "repeal and replace" health-care reform would mean for millions of non-multimillionaires.
But at least Johnson has been straight on embryonic stem cell research: "[W]hen so many people in our country oppose embryonic stem cell research, they should not be forced to have their tax dollars used in support of the program."
That's encouraging for budget hawks. Can you imagine the ax he'll now have to take to defense spending out of respect for Americans who oppose war?
In some elections this year, vapid Republican candidates like Johnson are matched with equally vapid Democratic opponents. In Wisconsin, Johnson's empty-suit candidacy is pitted against one of the most intellectually engaged and principled members of Congress.
Feingold, the lone senator to vote against the U.S.A. Patriot Act, as well as the lone Senate Democrat to vote against dismissing impeachment charges against President Clinton, deserves a more dignified defeat, perhaps against a conservative who is willing to stand up for his beliefs.
For instance, here is Johnson's position on the federal health-care reform: "The health-care bill is the greatest assault on our freedom in my lifetime. It must be repealed."
A conservative who believes a plan that offers subsidies to low-income people to buy private insurance is an "assault on freedom" must detest the programs it is modeled on, such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration.
Furthermore, a principled conservative probably wouldn't make his support for civil liberties dependent on who's in office. "I wasn't overly concerned with George Bush in power," Johnson has said about his support of the Patriot Act. "Sometimes you have to give up a little bit."
The original version of Feingold's excessive celebration ad used footage of Vikings receiver Randy Moss "mooning" Green Bay Packer fans. That actually gave Ron Johnson too much credit. Moss has the guts to say what he believes, as well as represent Minnesota.
Johnson is also from Minnesota. But you won't find that on the bio on his website. That's just another detail.
Jack Craver is an Isthmus contributing writer and blogger; See here.