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Paul Fanlund: Hey Democrats, a decade of playing nice is enough

Paul Fanlund: Hey Democrats, a decade of playing nice is enough

Trump Vos mashup

Foes of Robin Vos (right) and Donald Trump have tried genteel, traditional politics, but the times call for hardball.

Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

To me, the low point in 2020 politics occurred at a pre-election Donald Trump rally in Muskegon, Michigan, when Trump demanded that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reopen her state.

“Lock her up” chanted the crowd, a fate Trump’s followers have been quick to suggest for powerful Democratic women since Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Lock them all up,” Trump replied.

His comment was heinous because the FBI had just arrested 14 men on charges of plotting to kidnap Whitmer.

Two weeks after Muskegon and just before Election Day came a brilliant New Yorker article headlined: “Why Trump can’t afford to lose.” The author meticulously described the many legal threats facing Trump if he lost the legal protections of the presidency. (The story was illustrated by a full-body sketch of Trump, his upper body in a business suit, the lower half in an orange prison jumpsuit.)

“The president has survived one impeachment, 26 accusations of sexual misconduct, and an estimated 4,000 lawsuits. That run of good luck may well end, perhaps brutally, if Joe Biden wins,” said the subhead.

Lock her up, indeed, was my thought.

[Paul Fanlund: Joe Biden and Tony Evers are alike — and so unlike most Republicans]

Now, with the Trump administration finally allowing the Biden transition to proceed, Trump’s potential criminal exposure is a popular media topic.

“Should Trump be prosecuted?” was the headline on a New York Times op-ed by Andrew Weissmann, a senior prosecutor in the investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Weissmann’s answer was “yes” with a qualification: “I do not come to this position lightly.”

“The case against indicting Trump,” was the headline for a Washington Post op-ed by Randall Eliason, who teaches criminal law at George Washington University Law School. “Launching criminal investigations into an outgoing president would set a dangerous precedent,” he wrote.

He pointed to the Trumpian “lock her up” chants: “Those who recoiled from such behavior should think twice before encouraging Biden’s attorney general to start down that road.”

But here’s the thing, my point in writing this column.

Don’t come to me with the argument that going after the ex-president would signal disrespect to Trump supporters at a time when we are trying to heal the nation’s political and cultural wounds.

[Paul Fanlund: Barack Obama, Fox News and the state of the news media]

Playing nice with Americans who still support Trump simply doesn’t work. Many of them seem to regard it as a sign of weakness, not a gesture of reconciliation.

Ever since Kathy Cramer, the University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist, made “the politics of resentment” a household phrase in her book on Wisconsin politics by that title in 2016, it feels like Democrats have often tiptoed around rural conservatives.

We are told to understand their “grievances” — why they came to so intensely dislike urban and suburban centrists and liberals like those who inhabit much of Madison.

How’s that attempt at understanding and conciliation worked out for us?

For the past decade, statehouse Republicans have focused on consolidating power, not serving constituents, in everything from attacks on labor unions to anti-democratic gerrymandering to voter suppression to reducing the authority of incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

But at least those GOP stunts didn’t cost lives.

[Jessie Opoien: It’s hard to be grateful for anything in 2020, but I’m giving it a shot for Thanksgiving]

This year, statehouse Republicans, led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, chose to pursue cheap political points around “freedom” and “liberty” by politicizing everything Evers tried to do to encourage masks, social distancing and temporary shutdowns to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Only now — after months of inaction — have those same Republicans seen the explosive numbers of late-fall cases in Wisconsin and, suddenly, are eager to talk.

It has always been ridiculous to turn wearing a mask into a political statement. If we cannot require that people wear masks, why bother with laws against drunken driving or prohibitions against smoking in restaurants? Both infringe on precious individual liberties, don’t they?

Leaders at UW Health, the parent organization of the regional University Hospital, bought a two-page newspaper ad headlined “An urgent call to action” out of apparent desperation. Signed by hundreds of health care employees, it begged people to wear masks, wash hands and socially distance.

These health workers risk their lives to care for coronavirus patients, some of whom probably contracted the virus by refusing to wear a mask. Maybe the health care workers should assert their “liberty” by walking away from irresponsible patients. What do you think?

I often disagree with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand New York City congresswoman who has gained notoriety as a leader of far-left Democrats. Her proposals often seem unrealistic and unaffordable to me. But her recent comments about Democratic timidity struck me as spot on.

[John Nichols: Trump’s desperate last gasp is a scheme to disenfranchise Black and brown voters, students and progressives]

Here’s an indelicate headline by The Hill: “Ocasio-Cortez: Republicans don't believe Democrats ‘have the stones to play hardball.’ ” The article described her argument that Democrats should try to expand the U.S. Supreme Court after Republicans fast-tracked Trump court nominee Amy Coney Barrett a week before Election Day.

That, of course, happened four years after Republicans successfully blocked Barack Obama’s appointment of a Supreme Court justice in an election year. The Hill article quoted Ocasio-Cortez colleague Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, arguing that Democrats have won six of the past seven popular votes for president but Republicans have appointed six of the past nine justices. How reflective of the will of the people is that?

Now, I know there’s a rationale for Biden and Evers behaving as the grownups in their respective political ecosystems, seeking to rekindle that long-lost magic of collaboration and reasonableness in politics. Heck, I have made that case myself, yearning for an era of politics that now seems gone indefinitely.

But in the near term at least, when they have strategic options, I think Democrats should play hardball in language and in tactics. It’s not like Republicans and their supporters will think better of them if they don’t. They probably just regard them as patsies.

For me, recent weeks have proven to be the breaking point.

In Wisconsin, you have GOP leaders who downplayed a lethal pandemic, playing politics to try to damage an opposition governor. People have almost certainly died as a result.

Nationally we have the unprecedented spectacle of a president willing to further destroy democratic norms and put Americans at risk because he cannot stand to be called a “loser.”

OK, we won’t call you a “loser,” Mister President.

But what about “felon?” How does that sound?

If that happens, I won’t spend time worrying what Trump’s supporters think.

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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

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