Graeme Zielinski’s long road out of Wisconsin politics

Jack Craver wrote the book on Graeme Zielinski, and you can’t understand the background behind the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s decision today to relieve him from official spokesman duties without reading Craver’s June 2012 post about Zielinski’s history of intemperate freakouts and enemy-making.

I was an enthusiastic fan of Craver’s column at the time and said so on Twitter because he just came out and said the stuff that political types — meaning employed partisans, activists and observers — all were talking about behind closed doors.

Like clockwork, of course, it earned backlash from liberal apparatchik Jud Lounsbury who argued, as best I can tell, that it was invalid for Craver to write about any topic other than Gov. Scott Walker.

Anyway. Zielinski today is out as spokesman after tweeting on Friday a series of comparisons between Walker and Jeffrey Dahmer. (Lounsbury is still fully behind him!) He isn’t fired, mind you, but he’s not the official spokesman anymore. And I think there’s a sense among a lot of political types that this has been a long time coming.

I have a few thoughts about this:

  • I had coffee with Zielinski once and worked with him by email all the time, and my strong impression is that his twitter feed was a bit of a performance. Behind the scenes, he certainly did not come off as the chest-beating jerk that he sometimes played on twitter. I assume that at some point the decision was made that Wisconsin Democrats would be super-confrontational against guys like Charlie Sykes or whoever, and I further assume Zielinski was carrying out that strategy. I don’t think there’s a plausible case that Zielinski was some kind of rogue twitterer.
  • This raises the question of what that strategy was supposed to accomplish exactly. Was the idea that Democrats were proving they weren’t wimps? That contempt and abuse for right-wing memes would keep them from gaining broader currency outside the blogosphere? Was the idea a “base strategy” that didn’t concern itself with independent voters?
  • Zielinski’s style was definitely counterproductive to Wisconsin Democrats’ side. How could it not be? He annoyed media people, alienated activists who should have been allies — Craver named Melissa Ryan and Emily Mills, both of whom have big and loyal twitter followings — and gave grist to right-wing opponents.
    I spoke on the phone with a Democratic Party contact today whose perspective is that there is a large gulf between the cultures of professional political staff — people who, say, run legislators’ offices in Madison — and campaign staff who parachute in for elections or political spox like Zielinski.
    Maybe Zielinski’s scorched-earth approach is of some use in a campaign, this source said, “but it doesn’t do any good if your job is to support a policy agenda. The problem is (Democrats) don’t have one” — or at least not one that’s well-defined enough.
  • All that said, and I say this a bit gingerly: There was something a little bit fun about Zielinski’s twitter style, which was a mixture of wild name-calling, Catholic arcana and sports fandom. As a writer, he had a way of dialing everything up to maximum intensity that was annoying and credibility-sapping but also sort of, I don’t know, dramatic? Interesting? I don’t think there’s any good defense for Zielinski’s behavior but I also dread the boring political communiques that are sure to follow in his wake.
    But I contradict myself. I dreaded Zielinski’s communiques, too, because when everything is worse than Jeffrey Dahmer it is impossible to know which outrage to take seriously.

Even though he wasn’t actually fired, there has already been a lot of grave-dancing, and why shouldn’t there be? Schadenfreude is a powerful thing and Zielinski has insulted a lot of people. But the bigger question is whether the Democratic Party’s substantive approach to communications is going to change. On this point I think the smart advice of the day comes from Mills, who wrote on twitter:

If the goal is to thoroughly delegitimize both major parties in Wisconsin, we should absolutely let their PR people keep on keepin’ on. If, however, the people would prefer even a vague approximation of constructive debate & functionality in its parties, accountability now.

About Robert Mentzer

I am the opinion editor at Daily Herald Media.
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