David Michael Miller
As Gov. Scott Walker's presidential campaign gets national attention, press outlets have written about the role of the political left in Walker's rise. They have, somewhat correctly, pointed out that Walker has been able to make Democrats appear irrational and whiny.
While the tactless, unfocused rage on the left is noteworthy, the tactical, focused rage on the right has escaped similar scrutiny. They are voters and donors driven by a message of punishment: Cut the wages of middle-class workers, devalue public education and take away benefits from the working poor.
On the campaign trail, Walker tries to evoke Ronald Reagan, but his message of punishing Democratic groups reminds me of another former governor of California.
"What is best in life?"
"Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentation of their women."
It is Arnold Schwarzenegger's first line in Conan the Barbarian and a fitting mission statement for Walker's vision of the Republican Party. A party that once championed the American Dream and self-determination now focuses on tearing down ideological opponents.
With Walker distracted on the national trail, I had hoped politics in Wisconsin would get less divisive.
There were positive signs. The state budget is an ugly document but discussion around it has been mostly civil. UW System leaders have made a concerted effort to cast off their politicized reputation and show the benefits of the UW's work to all sectors of the economy. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), a noted critic of public education, has shown leadership by seriously considering the impact of the cuts to the UW and K-12 schools.
But then Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) had to go and mess things up. In the middle of a contentious budget, Fitzgerald wants to pass right to work in a legislative blitz between now and St. Patrick's Day.
Act 10 was punishment for liberals wrapped up in a message of fiscal responsibility. Fitzgerald's right-to-work bill doesn't even bother to mask its punitive core. Right to work, which essentially forbids workplace rules requiring union membership, has no immediate benefit in this budget cycle, and the potential for long-term gains is specious. Research shows right-to-work states may create a few new jobs, but those jobs are offset by lower wages.
The benefits are entirely political, a way to gain points by punishing unions. It forces Democrats to focus their efforts on futile attempts at stopping this legislation and distracts them from more promising work such as building bipartisan support for state budget edits.
It weakens Wisconsin Democrats in future elections, as unions are a major source of get-out-the-vote efforts. The Republican majority isn't just running up the score in the football game; they are stomping on the leg of the other team's quarterback to make the opposition weaker in the playoffs.
The right-to-work blitz shows that Walker isn't a one-off; Fitzgerald is following a divisive but successful political strategy that is a win with both the fundraising elite and the base. Walker-style politics are here to stay in Wisconsin.
The presidential primary season will show if Walker's Wisconsin strategy becomes the dominant political message of the national GOP.
Walker has tried to find his equivalent of Reagan's "shining city on a hill" -- a speech that deftly mixes optimism, patriotism and Christian symbolism. Even the name of Walker's political action committee, "Our American Revival," tries to evoke that imagery.
But Walker has never been able to match Reagan's message of inspiration and aspiration. Thus, he has resorted to aping another Reagan speech -- the myth of the welfare queen. In his 1976 campaign, Reagan spoke of a woman abusing welfare to live a lavish lifestyle. It is an anecdote that never matched the facts -- the number of people on welfare who abuse the system has always been relatively small.
Still, it is a powerful myth. It was a perfect message for the recession of the '70s. It gives dispirited workers a target for their anger. They are told the reason they can't get ahead is because of a freeloader on the taxpayers' dime. Sound familiar?
Obama's message of hope ended up feeling hollow to many. Walker and Fitzgerald stepped in, creating a message that capitalizes on hopelessness. They represent a party so beholden to propping up a wealthy few that they can no longer promise increased prosperity for all; the best they can promise their voters is that they will make everyone equally miserable.
For the message to change in Wisconsin and elsewhere, someone in the Democratic or Republican parties has to recapture the feeling of the "shining city" or else we are doomed to years of politics based entirely around "crushing our enemies."