On a Wednesday in February, Barry Burden was deep into a speech analyzing Wisconsin’s 2018 election results when he arrived at the last slides of his PowerPoint.
Those graphs caused some in his Downtown Rotary audience to smile ruefully, look at one another and shake their heads.
Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist and a pre-eminent elections expert, had charted last fall’s votes from all 99 Wisconsin Assembly districts — the first slide by district number, the second by Republican vote share.
Burden explained how his charts depicted how Republicans, who unilaterally drew the legislative boundaries a decade ago, won an overwhelming majority of seats, typically with 55 percent to 65 percent of the vote.
“This is healthy enough to allow them to win comfortably, but narrow enough that Republican-leaning voters are spread across many districts in an efficient manner,” he explained to me this week. “It is a highly effective gerrymander.”
The dots on one chart formed a sort of red snake of close but comfortable GOP victories. Almost all Democratic winners, by comparison, were packed into fewer deeply blue districts. In a way words cannot, the charts illustrated what GOP gerrymandering on steroids looks like.
They also explained why even though Wisconsin voters in aggregate favored Democratic Assembly candidates by 53 percent to 45 percent, Republicans maintained a preposterous 63-36 majority in that chamber.
These days, that gaudy margin enables Republican Speaker Robin Vos to claim a political stature rivaling that of Tony Evers, the Democratic governor. While the maps are being litigated, they have fundamentally altered the Wisconsin governmental landscape for all of this decade.
That’s your Republican Party. If they cannot win on popularity of policies, they pretty much cheat, which is certainly the modus operandi in Washington, D.C., led by President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Democrats tend to want to play fair, or at least believe that bending or breaking the rules will backfire. Republicans suffer no such pangs of conscience.
That’s what was off-putting about Joe Biden’s statement when he joined the presidential campaign: that Trump — not the GOP itself — is what is wrong in American politics.
Speaking in Dubuque, Iowa, Biden said he knows how to successfully work with Republicans. He said this even though, as vice president, the GOP prioritized blocking President Obama over any national interest.
He characterized the Trump administration as “an aberration,” adding that “this is not the Republican Party.”
The New York Times said Biden’s approach showed a “fault line” in Democratic politics between those who see Trump as a singular scourge and others who see an essentially corrupt party whose leaders deny science, attack respected institutions, demonize the free press and stoke racial hatred.
Biden’s apparently Pollyannaish attitude comes at a moment when Trump claims he is above any law and has turned Attorney General William Barr into a sycophantic personal lawyer.
In considering the GOP’s evil brilliance, just look at the judiciary. It has effectively turned both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Wisconsin Supreme Court into arms of the Republican Party.
At the federal level, jamming through deeply flawed nominees like Brett Kavanaugh assures that Supreme Court votes will be reflexively conservative for years, maybe decades, to come. Lament all you like the story of Merrick Garland, who had every right to be seated but was blocked. His name is now a political footnote.
At the state level, the right-wing justices who form the state Supreme Court majority recently ruled against Evers in a case related to the GOP’s lame duck efforts to limit Evers’ authority before he took office. Some surprise, eh? We might as well have had Vos and GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald issuing those rulings.
As demographics change and conservative white males lose influence, what better tactic than to pack the judiciary as a long-term firewall against popular will?
Christopher Kang, chief lawyer for Demand Justice, a progressive group fighting for judicial balance, described that in the Daily Beast recently:
“Republicans have long understood that the courts are central to implementing their extreme, unpopular agenda. It should be no surprise that when Republicans have power, they manipulate and leverage it to the greatest extent possible to achieve their highest priority: packing the courts with narrow-minded judges who will favor corporations and the powerful, while turning back the clock on our rights, for generations.”
Kang described how the GOP has disregarded “blue slips,” a U.S. Senate tradition since 1917 that allowed senators to object to judicial nominees from their home states, and also kicked the nonpartisan American Bar Association out of its traditional role evaluating potential judicial nominees.
“When the Senate rules got in their way,” he wrote, “Republicans invented the ‘nuclear option’ and gained leverage by threatening to change the rules with a simple majority vote, instead of the required super-majority.”
Obama, for all his strengths, long failed to understand that the GOP prioritized delegitimizing him over serving the country.
Yes, too often it seems that Democrats get hung up on fairness, or at least the optics of fairness.
So where does this leave us?
The Democratic Party needs leaders who can at once match the GOP’s politics-as-war tactical acumen while not painting the entire Republican Party as vile and corrupt. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi comes to mind.
But back to Biden.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Max Boot noted that there was a mind-boggling 9 percent of voters who supported Obama and then Trump. Demonizing the entire Republican Party, he wrote, might push these voters deeper into Trump territory and deepen the partisan divide that is tearing the country apart.
In a Washington Post poll last January, 32 percent of Republican respondents said they preferred a GOP nominee other than Trump. Such Republicans might abandon the party, the thinking goes, but not with caustic indictments of the entire party.
OK, then, Democrats need to thread this needle.
But along the way, it would be nice if it didn’t seem like they were always getting outplayed.