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Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, left, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald used a lame-duck session of the Legislature to push through bills to hamstring the Democrats who will soon be governor and attorney general. In abusing their powers in an effort to thwart the will of the people, they are at odds with their party’s historic values. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

Thomas Jefferson warned in the first days of the American experiment about “timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of Liberty.”

Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos are timid men.

They are afraid that their Republican Party — the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower — can no longer win fair elections. They worry that their ideology, the conservative faith once advanced by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, can no longer compete in the battle of ideas.

To an extent, they are correct. As it has bent to the demands of Donald Trump, the GOP has fallen on hard times. In the Nov. 6 elections, Republicans lost control of the U.S. House and seven governorships. One of those governorships was in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker was swept from office in an election that saw Democrats win every statewide constitutional office and a U.S. Senate seat.

Only the gerrymandering of legislative districts allowed Vos to remain as speaker of the state Assembly. Fitzgerald also retained his position as majority leader of the state Senate. But these political careerists know that their party is in crisis. They know, as well, that the conservative movement that has sustained the GOP in recent decades has, with the surrender of principles and ideals to the service of Trumpism, collapsed under the weight of its own hypocrisy.

Fitzgerald and Vos could take up the difficult work of remaking their party and their movement, adjusting approaches to respond to changing times and new challenges. But that would require the timid men to put their faith in their own abilities, and the abilities of the candidates they support, to appeal to the voters of Wisconsin in free and fair elections.

Or they could exploit their lingering power to advance the genteel despotism that Jefferson feared.

Vos and Fitzgerald appear to have chosen the latter path, and they are now scheming to use a lame-duck session of the Legislature to cheat the voters of Wisconsin.

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In an effort to preserve conservative control of the state Supreme Court, Fitzgerald and Vos are proposing to change 2020 election dates in order to avoid a high-turnout election when the court seat is chosen on April 7 of that year. They propose to move the state's presidential primaries — which are expected to draw high interest, especially, though not necessarily exclusively, from Democrats — from April 7 to March 10. Why? So that Gov. Walker’s untested appointee to the court, conservative judicial activist Daniel Kelly, will have an easier time. 

Wisconsin’s county clerks have warned that scheduling a new election in order to protect Kelly will cost taxpayers dearly — perhaps as much as $7 million — create confusion for voters and lead to logistical nightmares for clerks and poll workers. This is all true. But the more serious issue is the signal such a change would send regarding respect for the will of the people.

If the timid men who control our Legislature — for now — are allowed to attack the infrastructure of democracy in Wisconsin, the liberty of the people to choose their leaders and their judges will be every bit as threatened as Jefferson feared.

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

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times