Why would a Republican Party that for eight years governed Wisconsin without a smidgen of evenhandedness be expected, in defeat, to show grace or class?
As proved this week, it shouldn’t.
Throughout this decade, Gov. Scott Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos made Wisconsin politics an ugly, zero-sum blood sport, and even with Walker defeated, that playbook is unchanged.
The joke is on the rest of us who somehow imagined that a likable centrist like Democrat Tony Evers — extending an olive branch of bipartisanship as governor-elect — would be met with anything other than a middle-finger salute.
Walker, the career politician, has always governed primarily for monied, far-right interests to advance his quixotic dream of the presidency. Let Wisconsin’s future be damned. Let someone else clean up his mess — the crummy roads, the underfunded schools and the overcrowded prisons. A successor can also unravel his Foxconn mess, which resembles a dumpster fire fueled by taxpayer dollars.
Now Fitzgerald and Vos take center stage.
And they behave like a pair of power-hungry politicians determined to handicap a Democratic governor before he even takes office. Over the years, they have helped transform Wisconsin — once a beacon of clean and compassionate government — into the Mississippi of the Midwest, complete with a healthy dose of dog-whistle racism.
So, here we are again, with noisy winter protests inside and outside the state Capitol, bookending Walker’s governorship — historic protests over public labor union rights at the start, another set of enormous and nationally publicized protests as he prepares to exit the building.
The state GOP clearly doesn’t care that Wisconsin again looks like a third-world joke to the nation. As an opinion column in USA Today summed it up: “Elections have consequences, unless you’re a Republican.”
The New York Times datelined a story from Madison atop its print front page Tuesday and covered the Legislature’s deliberations in real time with a prominent spot on its home page.
Madison native Dan Kaufman, in an op-ed for the Times, wrote in part: “No one is really bothering to hide the purpose of this lame duck legislation: to continue the Republicans’ hold on state government, even at the expense of core democratic principles like respect for the separation of powers and majority rule.”
A headline in The Washington Post’s Daily 202 column read: “Lame-duck power grab in Wisconsin showcases the GOP’s embrace of zero-sum politics.”
Walker, Fitzgerald and Vos probably regard such news coverage as irrelevant and dismiss the entire controversy as inside baseball to be forgotten by the average Wisconsin voter.
To me, the central takeaway from this week’s lame-duck spectacle is this: Once you buy into zero-sum, win-at-any-cost politics, upping the anti-democratic ante comes naturally.
And frankly, these Republicans may be reassuring themselves, what’s the threat?
In the 2016 election, their gerrymandering won them 65 percent of the seats in the state Assembly on only about 52 percent of the votes. This year, Democratic Assembly candidates received 205,000 more statewide votes than Republicans yet picked up only a single seat. That is 53 percent of votes for Democrats, producing only 35 percent of the seats.
Yet, GOP operatives claim, those whining Democrats make too much of gerrymandering.
Just as notably, only two GOP members of the Assembly and one state senator elected this year are in districts that Evers won. So, they must tell themselves, my people wanted Walker anyway, so screw fairness.
I asked Barry Burden, an expert on national politics as a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about repercussions from political power grabs.
“There is surprisingly little penalty for parties and politicians who violate norms and take advantage of their positions to gain more power,” he said. “One reason is that the public is distracted from those concerns by other things that happen in closer proximity to the election or matter more to their everyday lives.
“Another reason,” he added, “is that institutions may be designed to limit the impact of public opinion. For example, legislative districts might be configured so that a party can lose the popular vote but still win a majority of seats.”
So for 2019, does anyone believe bipartisanship is possible? It’s hard to imagine why it would be.
Charles Franklin, the state’s most prominent pollster, shared an anecdote with me recently about 2012 polling results. After Walker’s recall election, his Marquette University Law School Poll asked half of respondents in a random sample: “Do you think it is possible for Republicans and Democrats to cooperate more with one another in state government, or do you think their differences are too great for them to cooperate?” About 58 percent said it was possible, 38 percent said the differences were too great.
For the other half of respondents, that question was prefaced by conciliatory messages from Milwaukee mayor and Democratic candidate Tom Barrett and Walker from their election night speeches. The number of respondents who thought cooperation possible actually dropped to 51 percent, while 44 percent said no.
“I was struck that bipartisan calls for cooperation actually made people less likely to see cooperation as possible,” Franklin said. Our “history since 2012, and the current process, may make the case” that the pessimists were right.
When people lament the absence of bipartisanship, it’s galling to hear the “bothsidesism” — the suggestion of equal blame for the collapse of cooperative and collaborative democracy in Wisconsin.
That’s what you’ll hear from some writers who seek foremost not to offend. In endorsements, they regularly reward anyone who pledges to “work across the aisle,” as if the culpability for zero-sum politics is equally apportioned.
In the end, I admit having been wrong about this topic.
For years, I attributed most of Wisconsin’s bitter political division to Walker’s obedience to the Koch brothers and other extremists by unilaterally destroying everything progressive about Wisconsin. Turns out his fellow Republicans share his enthusiasm for autocracy, if not his presidential dreams.
It’s good for Evers to know this, I suppose, before he even starts.
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