By James Rowen, for   Published Aug 02, 2005 at 5:07 AM

Republicans have gotten a lot of credit for politicking better than their Democratic counterparts. Whether it's strategy or framing, message consistency or media savvy, Republicans supposedly do it smarter.

You know: Ronald Reagan won the Cold War while Michael Dukakis played dress-up in a tank.

Or John Kerry went windsurfing while George W. Bush lapped him via his NASCAR strategy.

Or Democrats spend taxes on social programs while Republicans want to repeal "The Death Tax," and so on.

But in Wisconsin, it seems the tide is turning: Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a leading Republican, elevated petulance to new heights with a media-messy reassignment of a subordinate, while smarty-pants Republican budget writers in Madison handed Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle a couple of weeks of positive media with bone-headed cuts to popular programs in the 2005-2007 state budget.

First to the GOP legislators. They voted to end Smart Growth planning. That's a program that helps local governments and their residents cooperate and shape their communities' evolutions.

Why was the Republicans' attack on Smart Growth such a strategic Big Mistake?

Because anyone can see the effects of Not-So-Smart Growth all over the Wisconsin countryside. Ask any angler, or hunter, or weekend camper -- Democrat, Republican, Independent, Whig -- if they like seeing subdivisions plopped into farm fields, or scenic views junked up by Big Box stores and their parking lots, or extra traffic rumbling through residential neighborhoods or past their own front yards?

There's a pretty small "We Love Sprawl" constituency out there, so Doyle was able to hold news conferences and give interviews attacking the Republicans and announcing the restoration of Smart Growth.

Likewise, the Republicans tried to demolish the long-standing and bipartisan Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund -- which acquires wilderness acreage for the public's enjoyment -- using transparently slimy tactics. This was even clumsier than trying to dumb down Smart Growth.

So call that the GOP's 2005 Big Mistake II, and throw in some Bad Timing demerits, too.

What the GOP tried to write into the budget was a provision to force the Stewardship Fund to spend itself out of existence by acquiring property -- that the state already owned -- while spinning the budget switcheroo as a huge land acquisition for the public.

This was tossing Doyle a hanging curveball, and he knocked it out of his well-covered news conferences, one of which he held at Gaylord Nelson State Park on the north shore of Madison's Lake Mendota.

You gotta ask yourself: Why on earth would Republicans, who have worked for years to move themselves away from their historic servitude to special interests, get themselves on the wrong side of everything implied by stewardship of land and resources? And also get their party on the wrong side of Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson's legacy just as his death pushed environmental preservation in the Wisconsin tradition to page one and the lead in many TV and radio newscasts?

And here's another example of Republican budgetary blundering -- call it Bad Timing II and Big Mistake III: The attempted starvation of crucial funding for Amtrak's Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago.

The Hiawatha is a huge success. In 2004, its ridership was a record 470,186 passengers, and 2005's usage is projected to exceed a half-million. The Hiawatha has the second-best on-time performance of any Amtrak line in the country. A new Amtrak station has been opened at Mitchell International Airport to bring in riders from northern Illinois, wean them away from O'Hare International Airport and make them regular customers on Midwest Airlines. And there's more. The just-passed federal transportation bill added funding for a long-needed upgrade to Milwaukee's abominable Amtrak station -- a move that should make the Hiawatha experience more pleasant and keep even more cars off the congested Interstate.

How would it have looked if the feds were adding investments to the Hiawatha just when Republican legislators in Madison were choking its budget?

In a nutshell, the Milwaukee area loves Amtrak, and Amtrak is good for the region's economy: You really have to be out of the loop, or blinded by that weird anti-rail/radio talk show ideology to mess with the Hiawatha line.

So that's what the pros in the GOP decided to do.

And gave a grateful Doyle more good media when he fixed the financing shortfall.

Go figure.

Now let's return to David Clarke, the Milwaukee County sheriff, local Republican star, and talk show darling.

Has there been a more unnecessary self-inflicted political wound than Clarke's dangerous humiliation of one of his own men, Deputy Michael Schuh? All of this over some criticism of Clarke that Schuh wrote in a union newsletter, where bosses always take heat?

Clarke's decision to order the 55-year-old former bailiff on a one-man foot patrol into a violent Milwaukee neighborhood after Schuh's anti-Clarke writing appeared was more than a Big Mistake. Or another case of really Bad Timing.

It showed that Clarke has no concept of managerial temperament, media smarts or common sense -- in other words, the first lessons of political savvy.

Or respect for the First Amendment, which is pretty important for a law enforcement official, since it's an integral part of the system that the elected sheriff has sworn to uphold.

Schuh won the public relations battle over the retaliatory reassignment as it played out on television, on the radio, in the newspapers and around water coolers.

And he'll probably win the next battle in federal court, where there is no cap on damages for a plaintiff suing a local public official.

That means that the already-strapped Milwaukee County taxpayer could be on the hook for a large monetary award arising completely from Clarke's arrogance and thin skin.

And by the way: where is the Committee for Responsible Government, those self-appointed guardians of good county government? The CRG was born as a taxpayers' revolt against the costly misdeeds of former Democratic Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament. It has aligned itself with the county executive it helped elect, Scott Walker, a Republican, and other conservative and/or fiscal matters.

Will the CRG have the courage and bipartisan integrity to apply the recall solution to Sheriff Clarke?

If its leaders don't, the CRG, its talk radio allies and the GOP they serve will all be able to say they are disciplined and can stay on message. But that losing message and all those other Big Mistakes suggest Republicans are losing their strategic touch.

James Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and a former Milwaukee mayoral aide.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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