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Westlake and Johnson
U.S. Senate candidate Dave Westlake answers a question during a June 21 forum in Waukesha while Ron Johnson, his rival for the GOP nomination, listens. The winner of the Sept. 14 primary will take on Sen. Russ Feingold, the Democratic incumbent, in November.

The Capital Times does not usually endorse in primary elections, as we still operate on the theory, expounded by William T. Evjue, that primaries are the places where partisans can sort things out before presenting their best prospects for November.

If we did do so, however, the Republican U.S. Senate primary would provide the clearest choice. It is now abundantly clear that only one of the two Republican candidates is in touch with reality.

It is also abundantly clear that this candidate, businessman Dave Westlake, is trailing Ron Johnson, the wealthy contender chosen by party leaders as their standard-bearer in the race to see who will challenge Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.

What distinguishes Westlake from Johnson is not so much a matter of ideology, although Westlake is the more consistently conservative contender. The distinction is in the relative familiarity of the two men with the real-world experience of Wisconsinites.

Johnson has staked out a particularly bizarre position on the question of whether U.S. economic and trade policies should be stacked against American workers -- especially in traditional manufacturing states such as Wisconsin.

Several weeks ago, Johnson claimed on Wisconsin Public Radio that “the fact of the matter is NAFTA and CAFTA have actually been successful for our economy.” The multimillionaire was then asked if it wasn’t true that Wisconsin businesses blamed free-trade deals “for hurting their business.”

That is, of course, the case -- as has been well documented by state and federal analyses of the impact of the trade agreements.

Confronted with reality, Johnson adopted the belligerent approach of the ideologue who says “don’t confuse me with the facts.”

“Well, in a free-market capitalist system, there are always winners and losers,” preached Johnson. “It’s creative destruction. That just happens. It’s unfortunate. But let’s face it, if it weren’t for that we’d still have buggy whip companies.”

It does not bother Johnson that the people he describes as “losers” are Wisconsin workers.

It does not bother Johnson that the “creative destruction” he so readily accepts is the collapse of industry in Wisconsin, a state that has lost three of its largest auto and auto-parts plants in recent years as production moved to Mexico and China.

But it does bother Westlake.

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He says he was “appalled” by Johnson’s statement.

“I think he should apologize for being so insensitive and for using such a ridiculous claim that this is simply going to happen and that we should somehow say that this is OK,” says Westlake. “It’s not.”

Johnson is not the type to apologize, let alone to recognize that he is wrong.

So be it. That’s why primary voters -- not party bosses -- nominate candidates.

Next month, Republican primary voters will face a choice. They can nominate a conservative who believes in the free market but who does not believe in tipping the balance against Wisconsin workers and industries.

Or they can nominate Ron Johnson, whose response to the economic downturn is to say “tough luck” and whose vision for the state’s economic future involves the continual trading away of jobs, production and whole industries until, presumably, Johnson’s “creative destruction” will be complete.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com

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