Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, achieved rock star notoriety this weekend when the New York Times Magazine featured him in an outsized profile, complete with Christie's humorless mug on the cover.
So what's the big deal about this large (the Times has him as "fleshy") and bombastic East Coast politician?
Well, the writer says Christie has succeeded in stereotyping public workers, teachers especially, as the "welfare queens" of our times. You may recall that Ronald Reagan attained the presidency — and was deified by conservatives — in part by exploiting that pejorative, with its race and gender undertones, to suggest the existence of mostly fictional hordes of undeserving welfare recipients.
Christie, who campaigned in Wisconsin for Gov. Scott Walker last fall, "may simply be the latest in a long line of politicians giving an uneasy public the scapegoat it demands," says the Times profile.
That scapegoat metaphor and Reagan reference apply nicely to Walker and the current Wisconsin landscape.
Walker appears removed and smugly oblivious to all the worry, discomfort and anger being felt in and around the Capitol by public employees and their supporters. He sits insulated in an East Wing world where he and fellow Republicans apparently delude themselves about their righteousness.
In the quickly famous prank call last week in which a blogger posed as a major campaign donor and spoke with Walker for 20 minutes, much reaction has focused on Walker seeming to have considered sending "troublemakers" masquerading as protesters into crowds.
But it was a Walker passage with the prankster about a recent dinner speech with his cabinet members that most resonates with me:
"I stood up and I pulled out a picture of Ronald Reagan, and I said, you know, this may seem a little melodramatic, but 30 years ago Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday we just celebrated the day before, had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers.
"And I said, to me that moment was more important than just for labor relations or even the federal budget," Walker continues. "That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall in the fall of Communism because from that point forward the Soviets and the Communists knew that Ronald Reagan wasn't a pushover. And I said, this may not have as broad of world applications, but in Wisconsin's history — little did I know how big it would be nationally — Wisconsin's history, I said, this is our moment."
Uh-huh. So he equates stomping on public worker bargaining rights with the air traffic controllers' strike and then draws a direct line to the fall of communism. I don't know about you, but if I'm at that dinner, I'm clearing my throat and looking at my shoes.
Walker has been the vanguard among new GOP governors trying to do "big things" before bothering to understand the little things. These guys clearly see this as their moment, says Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political scientist and expert on American politics.
"Why is this happening?" Burden asks rhetorically. "I see three related factors. First is that conservatives feel threatened by the Obama administration, particularly the economic stimulus and health insurance legislation.
"Second, the tea party has reinvented the Republican Party to some degree over the past two years, pushing to an unequivocal stand against government spending," Burden says. "Third, Republicans made tremendous gains in the 2010 elections. This gives them the opportunity to shape legislation in a wide variety of states to a degree that hasn't been possible."
Walker has been combative and steadfast, reminiscent more of George W. Bush's mystifying and utterly unjustified self-confidence (remember "I'm the decider?") than anything Ronald Reagan ever said or did.
His motive is indisputable. As Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post writes: "For all of the valid concern about reining in state spending ... the underlying strategic Wisconsin story is this: Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party-tinged Republican, is the advance guard of a new GOP push to dismantle public-sector unions as an electoral force."
In the prank call, Walker talks about urging several other GOP governors to get or stay tough with public employee unions. Yet as this chaos enters its third week, Walker may be finding himself increasingly isolated.
Multiple reports in recent days have other GOP governors toning down the harsh anti-union rhetoric and even changing course after watching things boil over in Wisconsin.
Governors in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Florida have all backed away in one form or another. Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor expert at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told the Associated Press that the intensity of Wisconsin demonstrations may have surprised Republicans. "These guys in other states are equally conservative, but they don't want to create an unnecessary conflict which may prove politically embarrassing," Lichtenstein says.
Well, it's too late to avoid that here.
Even David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, chided Walker on public television's Newshour program Friday for being "way too polarizing." Brooks said Walker's "hyper-confrontational posture" will make it hard for him to govern after this.
Ah, but there is a bright side.
Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and a political moderate, told Politico that Walker makes "what other governors are trying to do look very reasonable and perhaps (they can) get compromises where they wouldn't have gotten them before."
So the GOP talking point for extremist governors everywhere: "Look, at least I am not that guy in Wisconsin."
I'm bemused by vapid newspaper editorials endorsing a compromise proposal that would temporarily curtail employee bargaining rights. On one side are workers who have already conceded the need for major financial sacrifice and only want to retain rights; on the other stands the most radical, union-busting politician in state history. Sure, kumbaya.
Behind the walls where he avoids all critics, Walker may see Ronald Reagan in the mirror. But many of us see a stubborn and incurious reflection of George W. Bush, with a touch less humanity.