It’s remarkable to spend a few days on the campaign trail – any campaign trail -- and then see how the stories that the right wing promotes about the race eventually enter the bloodstream of the mainstream media.
So I attended the Monday rally in Milwaukee where First Lady Michelle Obama rallied the urban base for Democratic businesswoman Mary Burke (my profile will run shortly), in her close race to unseat Gov. Scott Walker. The one event has now inspired three different wingnut storylines: Mary Burke wouldn’t let disabled and elderly voters sit down. Mary Burke wouldn’t let reporters talk to the crowd. Mary Burke demanded that event staff plug in her iPhone and play songs by her favorite artist Chris Brown, in a deliberate affront to domestic violence victims.
OK, I’m exaggerating the last one, a little. But Wisconsin Republicans are indeed charging Burke with insensitivity to domestic violence, because a local event contractor ignored the campaign’s playlist and made his own random music selections, including Brown’s “Forever,” on Monday afternoon. The party released a statement, and the Associated Press ran with the story, and other outlets picked it up, and Burke had to answer questions about it at a public event in Green Bay on Tuesday. That was completely ridiculous, and has mostly blown over.
But the other two story lines are real, and slightly more complicated – but not much. One man took to Twitter to denounce staff for seating his elderly parents in a section where they couldn’t see Obama on stage, because there were people standing in front of them. Before the event ended a dozen right wing Twitter accounts had turned his complaints into a national scandal, with Right Wisconsin claiming Burke "turns away elderly for VIPs."
It’s true the campaign seemed unprepared for the number of people who would need seats at an event that was set up pep-rally style, and didn’t have enough. There was a small area for the disabled, but hundreds of people who turned out, in an estimated crowd of 2,000, were old or frail enough to require a chair. And for a while, chairs were hard to find.
A larger than necessary press area had been cordoned off, with lots of extra seats. I had a table to myself and happily helped people liberate nearby chairs. Eventually a media aide noticed, and at first he tried to stop people – and then he gave them the few remaining seats, and called for more.
“I have two grandmothers who look like these ladies, I’m not telling them they can’t have seats,” Reggie Hubbard told me. He presided over wrangling dozens of new chairs, and later other staffers did the same. The seats didn’t arrive immediately, and there’s no doubt people were inconvenienced, but there was no callousness or elitism.
On the other issue that’s come up – that reporters were told not to talk to the crowd – well, sadly, that’s true, although it came from Team Obama, and I should say nobody kept me from interviewing the people standing near me. The rule, usually tightly enforced, has been a staple of Obama rallies at least since 2012, and I’ve complained about it before. Here’s what I said covering an Obama event in Oakland in 2012:
On the press arrangements for the event: I hate when privileged reporters complain about their treatment, so I hate myself right now, but I can’t resist. I understand why, for security reasons, the media have to show up early. I traded my ability to cover the protests outside in order to cover the president. My choice. But once inside, reporters were confined to a small room and kept away from the vibrant crowd a door away. We could hear gospel music and jazz and cheering, and the sounds of a roaring good party, but we couldn’t witness it. Why we couldn’t have at least stood in the theater, if not mingled with the joyous crowd and actually talked to real live people who love the president, is one of those campaign-genius mysteries that is beyond me.
At least in Milwaukee, we got to stand with the crowd, not in a separate room. But it really is political malpractice. I was told on Monday it was a question of security, but I can’t understand how: Believe me, we got no special access to the First Lady – or to the president at any campaign event I covered – that would make it dangerous for us to mingle with the crowd (and theoretically make it easier for the crowd to get closer to the Obamas.) We were as far away from the stage as you could get. I would understand if this was a policy that followed the awful Secret Service breaches we’ve learned about this week, but it predates them, though it wasn't true during the 2008 campaign. It seems like a dumb attempt at message control, and in my experience, it always backfires.
But it had nothing to do with Mary Burke. Local Democrats I talked to had never seen anything like it at a Burke rally. The right has gotten excellent at magnifying small campaign hiccups into defining scandals for Democrats, and Scott Walker’s minions at Right Wisconsin and elsewhere worked overtime to turn the Michelle Obama rally into a cavalcade of offensiveness and elitism. It was fascinating to see it happen in real time, in a race that has so many important issues to write about.