Ron Johnson says he gets a big smile on his face when the airplane he is aboard lifts off from Reagan National Airport in Washington and he knows he’s heading to Wisconsin.
So why not leave a place Johnson calls a frustrating center of dysfunction, stay in Wisconsin, and go back to the life he loved as a businessman in Oshkosh? Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, posed that question during an “On the Issues” session Feb. 5 at Eckstein Hall with the Republican senator who is in the last year of a six-year term in office
“I can’t quit, much as I’d like to go home,” Johnson answered. “The bottom line is this nation is on the wrong course and we’ve got to correct it. This nation is worth preserving.”
That means Johnson is running for re-election in November. The contest will pit him against Democrat Russ Feingold, who served 18 years in the Senate before Johnson defeated him in 2010. This year’s race is already attracting national attention, both because of the story line of two politicians with very different views engaging in a re-match and because the outcome could be pivotal in determining which party will control the Senate, come next January. Feingold has led Johnson in several recent Marquette Law School Polls.
Johnson said he was running for re-election for the same reasons he ran in 2010, when he was a newcomer to electoral politics. He views federal deficit as exploding, the health care law popularly known as Obamacare as a failure, and American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, as weak and wrong.
In 2010, Johnson said, “I ran because I was panicked for this country. It was on the wrong path. I’ve been there five years. I’m more panicked.”
Security is a key issue, Johnson said, and not just in terms of foreign issues. He listed income security, job security, retirement security, and health care security, along with national security, as issues on voters’ minds this year. “There’s such a level of uncertainty, there’s such a hunger for leadership,” he said.
All this said, Johnson said things are turning around in some ways, especially with the Republicans in the majority in the Senate. He became chairman of a major committee – the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs – after the Republicans gained the majority, and the committee has built a record of approving legislation cooperatively, often on matters that don’t make news, Johnson said.
The contrasts between Johnson and Feingold were strong in 2010. Feingold took part in an “On the Issues” session at the Law School on Jan. 26. The back to back sessions with the two candidates showed that their strong differences remain.
Johnson is highly critical of the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran related to nuclear weapons. He thinks it strengthens Iran, which he says is widely recognized as the largest state sponsor of terrorist acts in the world, when American policy should be aimed at weakening that country. He backs stronger sanctions against Iran, not dropping many sanctions. Feingold backs the Iran agreement.
Johnson wants to see stronger action against the Islamic group known as ISIS, including involvement of American military forces if done as part of a coalition of troops from other nations. Feingold opposes that, favoring other ways to weaken ISIS, including economic steps and effective use of targeted attacks on leaders.
Johnson told Gousha the Obama health care reform is “a massive consumer fraud.” He said, “It’s not affordable. It didn’t protect patients.” He said he wants to see individuals have a bigger voice in choosing their health coverage and the government a smaller voice. He said that individuals paid 68 cents of every health care dollar in the 1940s; now that is 14 cents. Feingold generally backs the health care law, although he wants to see some changes.
Johnson opposes raising the minimum wage, saying it will mean the loss of large numbers of jobs. Feingold favors increasing the minimum wage.
Johnson said there are ways available now to allow college students and graduates to refinance student debt. Feingold called for more federal action to make refinancing available and debt manageable.
Johnson remains a small-government advocate. He said many big government programs had failed, “other than that they’re very successful at mortgaging our children’s future.” The national debt has passed $19 trillion, he said. Johnson said that to admit that the debt is a huge problem would mean having to do something about it. Johnson has a slide-show presentation warning about the national debt that he has given to groups all over Wisconsin and in Washington, but the debt issue continues to get too little attention, in his view.
“One of the very prevalent diseases I see in Washington, D.C., is denying reality,” he said. Johnson was and remains a straight-forward advocate for describing reality as he sees it and calling for action. That puts him on a straight-forward course for a re-match with Feingold that promises to be both consequential and interesting.
To watch Johnson’s session with Gousha, click here. To watch Feingold’s session with Gousha, click here. News stories about Johnson’s remarks at the Law School are available here from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and here from Wisconsin Public Radio.