Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: WPRI Blog (page 1 of 6)

How a Bill Does Not Become a Law: An activist Dane County court has brashly upended the rules of lawmaking

Schneider22.1Every two years, the Wisconsin Assembly issues an activity book for schoolchildren. The book includes a cartoon called “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” which details the happy life of an ebullient piece of legislation named Bill.

Bill leads a simple life — all he wants to do is one day earn the governor’s signature on his belly and become law. The cartoon follows his traditional journey, from hearings held on his merits, to committees voting him out, to both houses of the Legislature passing him before sending him to the governor to become law.

Such has been the legislative process since Wisconsin’s inception in 1848. Yet in recent years, Bill’s celebration upon being signed by the governor would be a bit premature. Having lost control of the Legislature and the governorship, Wisconsin Democrats have added another step: To become law, Bill must first pay a visit to the Dane County Circuit Court.

Dane County has the distinction of not only being the home of state government; it is also indisputably one of the most politically liberal counties in America. And despite being only one of Wisconsin’s 69 state circuit courts, it has essentially become a second legislature.

Our friend Bill may have earned the imprimatur of legislators elected from all over the state and the signature of a governor elected by a majority of Wisconsin voters, but a single Dane County judge can derail Bill’s attempt to find a cozy home within the pages of the state’s statute books.

This is a problem not just for poor Bill, but also for the unfortunate citizens around Wisconsin who elect Republicans to the state Assembly, Senate and governorship. The ballots of millions are counteracted by the vote of one robed master elected by a strongly progressive electorate, whose elevated position is not earned by any specific legal skill or expertise, but instead his or her proximity to State Street. In fact, until recently, any lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin had to be filed in Dane County, giving its Circuit Court an elevated importance over any other local court in the state.

And thus, the Dane County Circuit Court has become a legal ATM for the state’s progressives: Insert a court challenge, and out comes a favorable opinion that will cost your opponents buckets of cash to appeal.

So-called “venue shopping” like this isn’t all that new. For instance, the federal court in Marshall, Texas, has been traditionally known to be friendly to those seeking money for patent infringements, and large companies from around the nation typically end up in this small Texas town. Quick trials and plaintiff-friendly juries are the norm in Marshall (as is its annual Fire Ant Festival), making it a popular vacation spot for lawyers.

Of course, picking a friendly federal appeals court is tricky, given that you have to predict what the lower courts are going to do. But those looking for anti-business outcomes are generally served well by filing cases in the jurisdiction of the notoriously liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers nine western states. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court either reversed or vacated 19 of the 26 cases it reviewed from the 9th Circuit; two years earlier, the supremes shot down 94 percent of its cases.

The Dane County Circuit Court has proven itself another great haven for liberal venue shoppers. In March 2011, it found itself in the middle of a national controversy when Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed a lawsuit attempting to block implementation of Gov. Scott Walker’s new law restricting public sector collective bargaining. Unable to prevail legislatively, Democrats attempted to sink the bill in the courts. And they found a very sympathetic ear in Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi.

It was important that Democrats get a lawsuit moving quickly; on April 5, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was up for election in a race that would decide the high court’s ideological balance. Having a case pending in a state court would bolster the impression that the Prosser election was really an election about whether Walker’s broadside to the public unions would stand.

On March 16, seven days after the Wisconsin Senate passed the collective bargaining bill, Ozanne filed a lawsuit seeking not to overturn the law, but to prevent it from being published in the first place. Two days later, Sumi heard one day’s worth of testimony, issued a temporary restraining order stopping publication of the law and quickly left town on a weeklong family vacation.

On his blog, Marquette University law professor Rick Esenberg said he was “astonished” at Sumi’s ruling, noting that in 1943, the state Supreme Court held that judges may not enjoin the publication of a law on the basis that it is or might be unconstitutional. “A bill, in the court’s view, is not enacted until it is published such that publication is part of the legislative process with which courts may not interfere,” noted Esenberg.

On April 5, Prosser narrowly defeated his liberal challenger, JoAnne Kloppenburg. On May 25, attorneys at the state Department of Justice sent Sumi a letter indicating that they might seek her recusal. The very next day, Sumi issued her opinion striking down the law in its entirety.

Within months, the state Supreme Court assumed its role as the state’s legal janitor and cleaned up the mess Sumi had made. (She ruled that the state Senate violated the open-meetings law, but failed to acknowledge the pertinent exemption for legislative actions.) In a contentious decision that led to accusations of justices choking each other, Prosser excoriated Sumi, writing, “In turbulent times, courts are expected to act with fairness and objectivity. They should serve as the impartial arbiters of legitimate legal issues. They should not insert themselves into controversies or exacerbate existing tensions.”

While the Supreme Court vacated Sumi’s decision, the pro-union litigants were not done. On Sept. 14, Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas once again struck down Walker’s law, this time based on a challenge from Madison schoolteachers and Milwaukee city employees. The ruling blocked the law from being applied to school and local government workers, but it remains in effect for state workers and employees of the University of Wisconsin System. The case is being appealed.

Yet another case of “Walker nullification” took place when Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan, who had signed the recall petition against Walker, struck down a Walker-approved law requiring photo identification to vote. Inexplicably, Flanagan did not disclose that he had signed the petition.

While the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar voter-identification law in Indiana, Flanagan ruled that his opinion should effectively trump the Supreme Court because the Indiana law allows a voter 10 days after casting a provisional ballot to produce identification, while the Wisconsin law allows only three days.

The fact that Dane County always got the first crack at adjudicating lawsuits against the state clearly irritated Republicans, who in 2011 passed a law allowing plaintiffs suing the state to pick venues other than Dane County. Legislative Republicans took advantage of this new law during the Walker recall process, when they sued the state Government Accountability Board in Waukesha County, which they considered a friendlier venue.

This new law, however, does nothing to stop liberal groups from filing suits in Dane County. Esenberg noted that constitutional challenges to enacted legislation are “nothing new,” and that challenges aren’t always illegitimate. But he notes that cases filed by Democrats in Dane County have become uniquely problematic, given that Dane is a “company town.”

“You have exceptionally politically charged cases being brought in a county which has this sort of this toxic combination of being both politically homogeneous and politically aroused,” said Esenberg. “You had these pieces of legislation coming before elected judges in a county where people were marching in the streets, pretty much all in opposition to these things, which raises questions about the political pressures that may be brought to bear on a judge who finds himself or herself in that situation.”

And while the ability of circuit courts to strike down state laws is not new, the recent hyper-partisan way in which the courts are being asked to function will have long-lasting impacts on Wisconsin law. Scott Walker and the GOP Legislature may only be with Wisconsin for the span of a few years; the precedent of litigating everything as a political weapon may be with the state forever.

Those ideological pressures placed on circuit courts will likely boil up again now that the Legislature has passed a much-discussed bill to allow an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. Environmental groups are expected to file suit at some point to block the mine. And that move for an injunction will almost certainly be filed in Dane County.

Some judicial observers have argued that it doesn’t matter where cases like this begin, as long as the Supreme Court is there to serve as a backstop to Dane County. For conservatives, this reasoning is problematic.

First, while the makeup of the court currently leans conservative, the court is usually only one April election away from switching ideologies. Liberals need but a single seat, in other words, to turn the court from a stop sign to a green light for Dane County opinions.

One thing is certain — the more the lower courts are seen as mere political arms, the worse it is for the reputation of the Supreme Court. Some conservatives have grown frustrated that the Supreme Court hasn’t yanked jurisdiction away from the appellate courts and struck down Flanagan’s photo identification ruling, for example.

But as one justice told me, that’s not at all how the Supreme Court should work. The court, instead, should almost always let the process work itself out. Setting a precedent of clutching politically expedient cases away from appellate courts could be terrible for the right, especially if liberals regain control of the Supreme Court.

In the wake of the recent Dane County decisions, the Republican Legislature has also proposed changes to how cases are handled. One proposal, for instance, would have prevented circuit courts from blocking duly enacted laws. Esenberg believes this would be a mistake, not only given that some laws should be invalidated, but also because politics are cyclical, and one day Republicans will need lower courts to block the actions of a Democratic governor.

Esenberg proposed a potential remedy for over-politicization of the courts: If a circuit court wants to issue an injunction to block a state statute, the party opposing the injunction has 10 days to appeal.

According to Esenberg’s proposal, if the ruling isn’t appealed in 10 days, the stay is lifted and the injunction is effective. If the ruling is appealed, the stay would remain in place, and the appeals court would have to lift it. If both the appeals court and circuit court agree on the injunction, then it stays in place.

But regardless of what reforms might pass, Republicans will not be able to legislate Dane County out of existence. Challengers to Scott Walker’s agenda will continue to look to the Dane County courts to block the will of the people. And liberal judges will continue to garner awards like Sumi’s for being the State Bar of Wisconsin’s “2011 Judge of the Year.”

And this will be bad news for our good friend Bill, who will have to routinely pack his bags for Dane County. Maybe the state can get him some Badger football tickets to make his frequent stays more pleasant.

Walker or Ryan? Here’s the early line on their 2016 chances

Schneider-Walker-RyanEvery now and then, two major talents emerge in close proximity. In 2011, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers finished first and third, respectively, in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting. Twelve times, two actors (including, in one case, three) from the same movie have been nominated for Oscars for Best Actor. (The most recent was 1984, when F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were both nominated for “Amadeus.” Abraham won.)

In politics, Wisconsin is experiencing such an embarrassment of talent. Virtually every other part of the country is honored to have one elected official with the chops to be considered presidential material. Yet in the Dairy State, the only debate is over which of its two top Republican stars would make a better commander in chief.

So who has the better chance? Gov. Scott Walker or Congressman Paul Ryan?

Walker and Ryan grew up within a car drive of one another. Ryan lived in Janesville, while Walker was raised 20 miles away in Delavan. Each considers Ronald Reagan a key figure in his political development. And both dominated national news in 2012 on their way to becoming national GOP stars.

Ryan, of course, had his taste of a presidential run, having served as Mitt Romney’s capable vice presidential sidekick. While the party faithful initially worried about how Ryan’s aggressive plans to scale back Medicare and Social Security would play with voters, it appears that Ryan may have been a net boost to the Romney campaign. While Romney lost the election by a wide margin of electoral votes, his slim margins of defeat in key states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida show those states ended up being closer than the polls indicated before the Ryan pick. He most certainly didn’t harm his status with the party faithful, who now know Ryan can stand up to the pressures of a nationwide campaign.

Yet with congressional Republicans faring so poorly nationwide, many party faithful think it is time to look for a governor like Walker. He’s taken his licks and won a recall election by a larger margin than he won his first gubernatorial contest; his toughness is appealing to a party that currently lacks it.

Of the two, Ryan is the better public speaker. His 14 years in Congress have honed his skills; he can speak knowledgeably and extemporaneously, no matter how arcane the topic. Walker has improved as a speaker, but he is cautious and more reserved than Ryan. His appeal is immense with Republicans, but he still makes progressives scream at their televisions.

Walker has history on his side. The only president elected directly from the House to the presidency was James Garfield in 1880 — a singular event that solidified Garfield’s status as either the best campaigner or worst president of all time, depending on one’s perspective. Governors, on the other hand, routinely ascend to the presidency, as voters appear to see their executive experience on the state level as a plausible dry run.

Of the two, Walker also appears to be the more ambitious. Following the November election, Walker went on an aggressive speaking tour around the country and has coyly avoided ruling out a run in 2016 (assuming he is re-elected in 2014).

Conversely, despite being a key player in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, Ryan has disappeared from the public eye and has uniformly downplayed his desire for higher office. He genuinely seems to enjoy policy over politics.

For Wisconsin Republicans, it is an impossible choice. Eventually, it may be up to the other 49 states to decide for them.

Que Pasa Republicano? To win again, the GOP needs to appeal to Hispanics

mexicoFollowing the 2012 presidential election, pundits of all stripes began appealing to retroactive prescience to explain what cost Mitt Romney the presidency. Whatever their pet issue, it suddenly became the reason Romney blew it — the Republican “war on women,” climate change denial, etc. Members of the Star Wars fan club thought Romneygot hammered because he didn’t take up the cause of Ewok independence.

But the most cited reason for Republican failure was the fact that Hispanic voters continue to drift away from the GOP. According to exit polls, Mitt Romney received 27 percent of the Latino vote, down from the 31 percent John McCain received in 2008 and down even farther from the 44.1 percent George W. Bush garnered in 2004.

In recent years, Republicans have tried to appeal to Latinos by stressing the similarities of their core beliefs: Hispanics are industrious and family-oriented, and their religious convictions make them a natural constituency for the GOP.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Gov. Scott Walker, and he explained that if Republicans stuck to a message of freedom and lower taxes, Hispanics would become allies. “The vast majority of Latino voters I know in Milwaukee County and statewide are very much driven by the small-business, entrepreneurial, hard-work mindset, and they really don’t want the government in their way.”

“I try not to ‘silo’ voters. I try to listen to what their concerns are,” he said. “I’ve actually spent a lot of time with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and… I realized that their members care about barriers to growth in small business — excessive regulations, excessive litigation, property taxes are too high, the sorts of things that I talk to everyone about. So I don’t say, ‘Here, my Latino message is going to be different than my message anywhere else out there,’ and I think voters appreciate that.”

But as Hispanics continue to jump ship, Republican campaigns become less about persuasion and more about simple math. There just aren’t enough white voters to maintain the GOP’s slim margins of victory in swing districts.

Still, as Walker’s statements indicate, it is simply not in the Republican DNA to start slicing up voters by race. Democrats are the ones who see voters in groups and tailor their message accordingly. Republicans see voters as individuals and expect their messages of liberty and self-sufficiency to have broad appeal. For Republicans, appealing to minority voters is like speaking a second language.

But it is something they have to do.

There is a small, fairly well-reasoned contingent of conservatives who would support modifying the Republican hardline stance on immigration. Despite the left’s dismissal of George W. Bush as a right-wing ideologue, he proposed the “guest worker” plan in 2004, accurately recognizing, I think, that we’re not just going to pack up 12 million illegals and ship them home. That plan was burned to the ground by his own party.

Republicans would be wise to follow the Jack Kemp “bleeding-heart conservative” blueprint. Kemp and his Empower America cohort Bill Bennett were outspoken proponents of immigration, calling immigrants “a blessing, not a curse.” In 1994, Kemp and Bennett opposed California ballot Proposition 187, a measure to bar illegal immigrants from obtaining public services.

Some Republicans think putting a Hispanic conservative on the ballot will bring Latinos home — as if Marco Rubio alone is the answer. But the record shows that Hispanics will vote against other Hispanics if they don’t reflect the interests of the group as a whole.

For Republicans, a lot is at stake: Without Hispanics, they may become a permanent minority themselves.

Political Misdirection: Candidates sometimes reveal more about themselves than they’d like

flagAn old Democratic campaign manager once revealed to me the key to successful public relations: “The more liberal your candidate, the bigger the American flag has to be on his bumper.”

It’s a simple illustration of how candidates are free to write their own narrative, no matter the facts. As George Armstrong Custer once said, his goal was “to make my narrative as truthful as possible.” Candidates are free to accentuate the things that make them look good, even if doing so provides a window into what they really think.

For instance, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde began his campaign this year by emphasizing his ties to Wisconsin. In one of his early TV ads, he proudly announces that he was born in the state and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Surely, any candidate wants to show voters he’s one of them, but Hovde has a special challenge: He hasn’t actually lived in Wisconsin in a quarter of a century. Hovde’s job as a hedge fund manager took him to Washington, D.C.; consequently, he’s ready to don a cheesehead, paint his chest green and gold, and change his two daughters’ names to “Harley” and “Davidson.”

Certainly this isn’t dishonest, but it’s clearly an attempt to make Hovde’s “narrative as truthful as possible.” Messaging misdirection is as endemic to politics as noodles are to lasagna. They go together like “beef” and “stroganoff” or “cole” and “slaw.” (Side note: Is there any other kind of slaw? Can we drop the “cole,” or is there a “Citizens for Cole” interest group out there keeping it alive?)

On May 17, the state Department of Workforce Development issued a press release announcing new statewide jobs numbers. The new Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers were of particular interest, as the gubernatorial recall candidates were sparring over different sets of employment numbers. Gov. Scott Walker’s numbers showed the state was gaining jobs, while Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett relied on a BLS report indicating that Wisconsin was last in the nation in job creation over the past year.

The headline of the DWD release said it all: “Wisconsin April unemployment rate declines to 6.7 percent.” I read it and immediately thought: “Oh, no, the state lost jobs.” Because if the state had gained jobs, that would have been the headline. When the BLS numbers show the state losing jobs, the unemployment rate is the last refuge for a positive headline. Sure enough, there in the last paragraph, on the second page, was the number: The BLS estimated a loss of 6,800 in the previous month.

Barrett himself wasn’t above shifting the topic. In fact, the whole recall election was a change in subject, as Barrett was loathe to mention public-sector collective bargaining even though it was the overwhelming reason why the recall petition got traction in the first place.

At one point, Barrett issued a memo showing his campaign “gaining momentum” in the polls. Translation: “I am losing this race.”

Regular people understand how ridiculous some efforts to control the narrative can be. Imagine your spouse joyously telling you that you can spend more time together… because Ryan Braun just got eaten by a leopard that ran out on the baseball field. Or picture your wife telling you the “great news” that you can finally go buy that Harley-Davidson that you always wanted… because she’s moving to Sweden with Sven, her personal trainer.

This isn’t simply reading between the lines — it’s reading outside the lines. So watch political ads very closely; generally, candidates will emphasize an area where they feel weakest. By trying to tell you nothing, they will often tell you everything.

Wisconsin Unions are No Stranger to Presidential Politics

flagLast Tuesday night, shortly before Tom Barrett strode to the stage to accept his party’s nomination to take on Scott Walker in Wisconsin’s June recall election, Barrett received a big atta-boy from the White House. In a statement, President Obama announced he was “proud to stand with Tom Barrett,” because the Milwaukee mayor would “move Wisconsin forward.”

It wasn’t the first time Obama had involved himself in the Wisconsin imbroglio over public sector collective bargaining. At the outset of the Madison protests last year, he called Walker’s proposal an “assault” on government workers. As a presidential candidate, Obama vowed to “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and “walk on that picket line” to preserve the “right” to collectively bargain.

Obama’s interest in Wisconsin is easily explainable; a Barrett victory would aid the president’s prospects in the state immeasurably come November. Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that will determine the presidency in 2012; if Walker is seen as vindicated, it could demoralize the state’s Democrats. For this reason, many see the recall as a precursor to the presidential election; in many ways, November could be Wisconsin writ large.

Of course, the current recall effort is unprecedented. But this isn’t the first time the issue of public sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin was inextricably intertwined with a seminal presidential election.

In September of 1959, telegenic young U.S. senator John F. Kennedy made the third of what would be many trips to Wisconsin to build support for his eventual run for the presidency in 1960. Wisconsin was the first primary in the nation, so Kennedy needed to win the state to show he was a serious player on the national scene.

On September 25th, Kennedy’s plane landed at Truax field in Madison; he was greeted by newly-minted governor Gaylord Nelson, Madison mayor Ivan Nestingen and state Democratic Party chair Patrick Lucey. They immediately shuffled Kennedy off to a meeting with 40 state labor leaders at Madison’s Park hotel.

Kennedy’s relationship with labor was tenuous, at best. He had served on the famous Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, which investigated the rampant corruption of Teamster’s president Jimmy Hoffa and his predecessor, David Beck. Kennedy’s brother, Robert, served as the chief counsel for the committee, and was widely regarded as an aggressive prosecutor of union misdeeds. (Robert Kennedy later documented his experience uncovering widespread union corruption in his book The Enemy Within.)

Inspired by his work on the committee tasked with exposing union corruption, John F. Kennedy introduced legislation that reformed union financial and reporting structures. In 1959, the Kennedy-Ervin union bill was merged with a much stricter President Eisenhower-endorsed Republican House version (the “Landrum-Griffin” bill), and became law.

Yet unions believed the final bill too closely resembled the original Republican version, and held Kennedy’s support of the final bill against him. At the September meeting in Madison, organized labor leaders excoriated Kennedy for voting in favor of Landrum-Griffin.

Madison Federation of Labor president Marvin Brickson asked Kennedy why he supported legislation that was “detrimental to labor unions.” Kennedy answered that Landrum-Griffin actually helped unions, as it would have prevented the corruption that had sullied the name of organized labor. (Hoffa had been creating so-called “paper unions” with phony members, which he then used to gain more control of the Teamsters.)

Harold Rohr, president of the Madison City Council and a representative of Painters Local 802, told Kennedy that the bill made “second class citizens” of honest workers. “The rank and file of labor people didn’t want to be harassed by this type of legislation,” Rohr protested.

Michael McMahan, business agent for the construction workers’ union, complained that the legislation unfairly targeted building trades. “I’ll say it as bluntly as I can,” Kennedy responded. “The building trades came out pretty well in this bill.” Kennedy then asked McMahan what he would suggest should be done. “I suggest you leave labor alone,” McMahan shot back.

That very day, in a show of solidarity with organized labor, Governor Nelson approved the nation’s first law allowing local employees to unionize. The 1958 election of Nelson, only the second Democrat elected in Wisconsin in the 20th century, made all the difference for labor unions.

Due to the Progressives’ takeover of the state Republican Party in the early 20th century, elected Democrats in Wisconsin were scarce. By 1958, it had been 26 years since a Democrat had won the Wisconsin governorship.

Democrats had been in the minority in the state senate and assembly since 1893. For four straight legislative sessions (1923–1929), there were no Democrats in the Senate.

Yet in the 1950s, Democrats began to emerge as a serious party in Wisconsin, in large part due to the money they raised from labor unions. When Democrat William Proxmire ran for governor in 1954, 55 percent of the money he raised was from organized labor. Labor also offered Democrats vote mobilization, phone banks, Election Day transportation, and independent expenditures. In The History of Wisconsin Vol. 6, author William F. Thompson speculated that “the triumph of the Democratic party in the late 1950’s would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, without these various contributions of the unions.” Republicans still outspent Democrats two to one, but organized labor was able to close the gap considerably.

Republicans, sensing the threat, in 1955 passed the Caitlin Act, which prohibited labor unions from contributing to political parties, committees, or candidates for state or local office. After passage of the act, union donations to Democrats plummeted.

But Democrats quickly adapted, and soon the state stopped enforcing the Caitlin Act altogether. In Nelson’s successful gubernatorial race in 1958, 21.7 percent of his money was raised from labor.

Shortly after Nelson took office came the law allowing collective bargaining for state and municipal employees. Soon, government unions flourished — and so did Democratic fundraising. Thanks to contributions by organized labor, a Democratic Party debt of $10,000 after Nelson’s election was turned into a $50,000 surplus by 1963. Soon, Democrats became the dominant political party in Wisconsin.

But while Nelson was pushing ahead for the unions, organized labor remained skeptical of Kennedy. Many Democrats thought Kennedy was simply trying to buy a Wisconsin primary win, although he and his competitor, Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, both spent about $150,000 in the election. Humphrey, who was an expert in labor politics, and who at one point in the campaign joined a union picket line and sang “Solidarity Forever,” despised the wealthy “Kennedy machine.” At one point, Humphrey likened himself to a “corner grocer running against a chain store.”

On election night, Kennedy got the Wisconsin win he needed; albeit by a slim 56 percent majority. Kennedy won six of the state’s ten congressional districts; the overwhelming majority of his votes came from the four most Catholic of those districts. Humphrey took the results as good news and stayed in the race to fight on in West Virginia; later, Stuart Symington, Lyndon Johnson, and Adlai Stevenson would all join in the Democratic primary to unsuccessfully thwart Kennedy’s ambition.

Had Wisconsin labor not been so skeptical of Kennedy, it is possible he could have cruised to his party’s nomination, and avoided the convention fight he would eventually face. In the general election, Kennedy would go on to lose Wisconsin by four percentage points to Richard Nixon, although, of course, he would win the presidency.

So while it may seem like Wisconsin is swimming in unchartered waters, it isn’t the first time union angst in the state has altered a presidential election. Only this time, Democrats have to hope a Walker win doesn’t erase some of the pages of their blueprint.

-May 14, 2012

Book End: Imagine a World Without the Printed Page

booksA few days ago, I stood in the local big box electronics store for 20 minutes, gazing at the array of e-book readers lined up on the counter. I felt myself aging ten years per second as I navigated between Nooks and Kindles, gigabytes and dual core processers. In the end, I decided I couldn’t take part in euthanizing the book industry, in which I one day hope to be a participant.

My stolid on-site review of these devices led to an instantaneous reflection on the role of good, old-fashioned books in our lives. The cultural influence of the printed page is impossible to measure; once ink becomes a relic, the unintended consequences could be severe.

Consider, for example, the obvious physical footprint books have on our topography. Some of our largest, most ornate buildings exist solely to house books; at some point, these libraries, bookstores and archives will simply serve as empty, cavernous remnants of the pre-digital era.

When books vanish, no longer will you be able to dazzle dinner guests with your imposing bookshelves full of mahogany-bound Russian poetry. A computer hard drive is a much less exciting conversation piece, and certainly a more difficult item about which to brag. (I always keep a book of poetry in my car, in hopes that if I die in a car accident, the headline will read “Area Man, Lover of Yeats, Decapitated in Horrible Flaming Wreck.”)

On a personal level, many readers will miss the tactile sensation of leafing through books. Devout bibliophiles even like the pain they feel in their necks after perusing bookstore shelves with their heads cranked to the side in order to read the vertically oriented spines. They buy books they will never read, but feel better about having them on their shelves at home. They relish finding hidden treasures left in used books, whether they’re notes scribbled in the margins or clues to the previous book’s owner on a slip of paper used as a bookmark.

The move towards digital books will also likely bring about the same type of information egalitarianism we’ve seen with the internet. In the days of the printed word, publishing was more or less a meritocracy; if a publisher was willing to back a book with the type of cash it takes to print a few thousand copies, it meant it was at least a professional product. (Those that want to point out that a publisher actually issued a book penned by The Jersey Shore’s “Snooki” may have their say at this point.) It will be much more difficult sorting through texts that don’t bear a publisher’s imprimatur, since all one needs to be considered an “author” now is to be able to turn on a computer.

Perhaps most importantly, physical books also provide a cultural permanency that would go missing if everything were stored on digital files. Right now, it doesn’t matter how arcane the issue is about which one might want to learn; somewhere, there’s a physical book that contains that information. Sometimes, the value of certain texts aren’t apparent within the same decade they are written. Yet if the value of historical information was left up to the capriciousness of e-book readers, it could all vanish with a few keystrokes. (Undoubtedly, had the U.S. Constitution been written on an iPad, it would have contained a few more references to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video.)

Similarly, physical books grant authors eternal life. The literary world is replete with names of writers who received lukewarm reviews during their lives (Nietzsche, Blake, Thoreau), but who became posthumously indispensable. Emily Dickinson’s first compilation of works wasn’t published until four years after her death, when her sister found her secret stash of nearly 1,800 poems. Yet authors in the digital age are just a few “delete” button presses away from eternal extinction.

It seems unlikely that there will be a day where books disappear completely. As long as there are wealthy people, rare books will be sold as commodities and held as investments. Middlebrow texts will become the realm of book fetishists, much as vinyl records are today. But once our cultural mores are untethered from the book standard, we could be set adrift in an age when everything is possible, but nothing is real.

Of course, the primary beneficiaries of the new digital age are the stately trees and critters that live amongst them, who will not be sacrificed to the paper mills. But next time you see a squirrel, see if he can get Tom Wolfe to sign your Kindle.

-April 16, 2012

Hiding Behind the Kids: Citing family, too many pols duck electoral duty

Last August, Congressman Paul Ryan announced for the 43rd time that he would not run for president. He’s always maintained that the ages of his children — three kids between the ages of 6 and 9 — are a factor in his decision. His standard line? “My head isn’t big enough, and my kids are too small.”

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels begged off, saying he didn’t want to subject his family to the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. “In the end, I was able to resolve every competing consideration,” he said, except for the most important consideration of all — “the interests and wishes of my family.” And when irascible New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bowed out of the race, he deemed it a “family decision.”

All of these family considerations have left Republican presidential voters with a choice of C-list emetics for candidates. Mitt Romney is a Republican when he deems it necessary to win Republican elections. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry all flamed out before the primaries were even held. Newt Gingrich is so toxic, he should wear a Mr. Yuk sticker on his lapel. (Poor Mitch Daniels: He hesitated to run because his wife once left him and returned to remarry him. Yet GOP voters warmed up to Gingrich, who changes wives more often than he flosses.)

And while “do it for the kids” is an aphorism in politics, more and more politicians are deciding not to do it for the kids. They want to protect their children from the Palin-ization of presidential politics, where every offspring’s missteps could translate into blogging frenzy.

But exactly how many of these kids are pleading with their parents to eschew a run for president? Think any politician’s 10-year-old-son wouldn’t love to say, “Hey, Dad, I’m having trouble with my footwork — can you call Peyton Manning and have him come over and show me the three-step drop?” You think “My dad is president” might be a good icebreaker with the ladies at high school parties?

The whole “I want to spend more time with my family” excuse is worn out and meaningless. Ambitious men have always run for office to get away from their families — generally, they only rediscover their progeny when it seems like they can’t win again. But that’s the beauty of being president — you get to take your whole family with you and live in the same house.

Furthermore, blaming the family when you decide not to run is a bit unseemly. Suddenly, your kids become impediments to the realization of America’s greatness. Suppose you spend all your time talking about how America is going to implode without changes to its entitlement programs — and then decide not to change those programs because you might miss some T-ball games?

How does that sound to military families, who have to do without fathers and mothers for extended periods of time (and sometimes forever) to preserve the American idea?

Sasha and Malia. The Bush daughters. Chelsea Clinton. All of us would be proud to have children as happy and well-adjusted as these kids — and every one has lived through the apparent horrors of growing up in the coolest house in America. We know politicians love their kids — but so do hundreds of millions of other American families that are looking for visionary and inspiring presidential candidates. We’ll chip in for baby-sitting, we promise.

Mark Pocan’s Smoke Screen: His pieties about protecting middle class families are a cover for hiking taxes on the poor

On June 15, Mark Pocan was on a roll. He stood on the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly delivering a sarcastic stem-winder, criticizing the new state budget so dramatically that it sounded as if he were auditioning for a community theater production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Pocan, who seems destined to inherit Tammy Baldwin’s safely Democratic congressional seat, ripped the Republican-authored budget for its use of fund raids, debt restructuring and fee increases (mostly UW tuition) to balance the budget.

Of course, this was pure calumny, as the last Democratic budget — authored with Pocan as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee — could be characterized only by those exact gimmicks.

Pocan thundered that the budget was an “attack on the middle-class families of Wisconsin.” In a particularly obnoxious critique of the GOP, Pocan said Gov. Scott Walker’s budget “increased property taxes” by $475 million. Of course the state doesn’t “increase” property taxes — it merely limits how much local governments can increase property taxes.

Apparently Pocan lost the memo that demonstrated that using those same numbers, the Pocan-authored budget of 2009 “raised” property taxes by $1.49 billion — more than three times Walker’s alleged increase.

Pocan finished with the most disingenuous talking point: Republicans were going after the middle class by scaling back the homestead and earned-income tax credits by $69.8 million. Surely, Democrats would never support taxes that harm the middle class!

In fact, Democrats prefer taxes that harm the poor.

Exactly 734 days earlier, Pocan stood on the Assembly floor arguing for a budget he authored that increased the cigarette tax by 75 cents per pack. This hike occurred directly on the heels of a $1 per pack tax increase that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law just two years earlier.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 54% of all cigarette smokers have incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Increasing taxes on cigarettes is a direct tax increase on people who can least afford it. And the increase isn’t insignificant.

State cigarette tax receipts jumped 54% the year after the $1 per-pack hike. In the three years since the Legislature began raising cigarette taxes, receipts have increased $762.9 million over the base of $296 million in 2007. If Wisconsin smokers follow national income patterns, that amounts to a $412 million tax increase on the state’s poorest people — the same people we pretend to help by pouring millions into social programs.

As a result of this massive tax increase on the poor, Wisconsin papered over its own fiscal mismanagement in the prior decade. Cigarette tax revenues now account for 5.3% of state general fund revenues, as opposed to only 2.35% three years ago. At $2.52 per pack, Wisconsin has the seventh-highest cigarette tax in the nation, behind only notorious spendthrifts like New York, New Jersey and Hawaii.

Democrats argued that higher cigarette taxes would dissuade people from smoking, leading to a healthier populace. Yet the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau estimates the number of smokers has dropped by only 3% per year since 2000.

In the meantime, one can walk into any gas station in Wisconsin and see a tattooed mother in her pajamas, holding a child in each arm, plunk down sixty bucks for a carton of heaters.

Sure, nobody puts a lighter to anyone’s head and forces them to buy cigarettes. But the numbers show that the new taxes aren’t really slowing many people down. And thanks to Democrats, being poor has gotten a lot more expensive.

“9-9-9” Hits the Heartland

Cain“Who here has heard of the ‘9-9-9’ plan?”

Virtually every one of the 150 hands in Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s Thursday town hall meeting shot into the air.

All day, Ryan had been peppered with questions about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s economic plan, which replaces the current federal tax structure with a 9 percent personal-income tax, a 9 percent corporate-income tax, and a 9 percent federal sales tax. Milwaukee radio talk show host Charlie Sykes began the questioning in the morning. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, answered another gauntlet of questions about 9-9-9 in a morning town hall meeting in Muskego. And now the residents of Oak Creek wanted to see if the plan had earned the imprimatur of Congress’ premier fiscal wonk.

Ironically, it was Ryan himself who took to the road last April to promote his own budget plan, which had recently passed through the House of Representatives. All across America, members of Congress were challenged on the details of Ryan’s budget at their town hall meetings. And many had trouble navigating their avalanche of charts and graphs with Ryan’s legendary alacrity. Now, he was being forced to explain someone else’s plan in the same way others had to defend his House budget in April.

Critics of 9-9-9 believe the plan’s regressivity render it dead in the water. (Cain addresses this problem in part by offering tax rebates to low income individuals.) They say the plan constitutes a large tax break for the rich, that it won’t raise the revenue it promises, and that it creates new taxes that Congress could more easily raise in the near future.

Yet Cain’s plan is an overwhelming victory in terms of marketing. Stunningly, in mere weeks, it appears Cain’s plan has saturated Ryan’s constituency. 9-9-9 has clearly piqued the interest of both conservative voters and enthusiasts of saying the same number three times in succession. (It is unclear as to whether former NBA star Moses Malone, who in 1983 boasted that the 76ers would sweep through the playoffs “fo, fo, fo,” is serving as Cain’s chief economic adviser.)

Ryan’s association with 9-9-9 began last week, when a headline in the Daily Caller breathlessly declared that “Paul Ryan ‘loves’ the idea of Herman Cain’s tax plan.” Ryan says the article didn’t get his position on Cain’s plan exactly right – while he “loves” the idea of candidates putting bold plans on the table, he wouldn’t sign on to all the details of 9-9-9. Specifically, he disagrees with layering a nine percent sales tax on top of a nine percent income tax, as many governments in Europe do.

When asked whether he thinks Cain’s numbers add up, Ryan says that while the plan hasn’t been officially “scored,” he believes it more or less raises enough money. “As someone who has been criticized for putting out a bold plan, I can understand what it’s like,” Ryan told me in between town hall meetings, adding that picking apart Cain’s plan was the job of the other presidential primary candidates, not his.

While 9-9-9 may have helped Cain surge to legitimacy in the GOP presidential primary, it also may be the only thing keeping his campaign afloat. Recently he has had trouble articulating his “phone a friend” foreign policy, in which he simply promises to be briefed often by really smart people. On CNN, he struggled to answer a fairly standard question from interviewer Piers Morgan on abortion, saying it was “not the government’s role, or anybody’s role to make that decision.” (He has since issued a statement saying his is “100% pro-life.”)

Meanwhile, members of Congress that spread throughout the country to talk about their accomplishments are likely to find that the star of their town halls is someone who isn’t even there. He is a frontrunning presidential candidate who, when a number of one poll’s respondents were asked to describe him in one word, used the word “pizza.” (Not since Herbert Hoover promised “a fourteen inch sausage-mushroom-and-onion in every pot” has the pizza rating been so high for a candidate.)

Other candidates are slated to roll out their economic plans over the next few weeks. But few will get the traction that Herman Cain has garnered through showmanship alone. It will be seen as to whether he can cash this goodwill into votes.

-October 24, 2011

Tough Noogies: What’s the big deal that Scott Walker didn’t campaign on curbing union power?

On the day before Gov. Scott Walker introduced his plan to restrict public-sector collective bargaining, he met with Democratic legislative leaders to brief them on the details. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca expressed disbelief, complaining to Walker that he hadn’t mentioned the plan at all during the gubernatorial campaign.

This meme has become the primary obloquy hurled at Walker during the collective-bargaining firestorm: Walker is somehow a liar for not mentioning his plan while campaigning for governor in fall 2010. Walker’s proposal “went far beyond what anybody thought he would do,” union leader Richard Abelson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in February. “He didn’t talk about it during the campaign. If he had said that, some people who supported him would have had some second thoughts,” said Abelson, head of District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Yet the “we was duped” talking point is as old as democracy itself. Ancient Greeks were probably overheard saying things like, “None of Cleisthenes’ YouTube videos mentioned that he was going to stop me from trading my wife for three goats.”

In 1960, Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller ripped his primary opponent, Richard Nixon, for not being forthcoming with voters about his plans. “I find it unreasonable — in these times — that the leading Republican candidate for the presidential nomination has firmly insisted upon making known his program and his policies, not before, but only after nomination by his party,” Rockefeller said.

He lost.

The Walker complainers have a more finely honed selective memory than people who remember the Titanic as a fine dining experience. Do they recall Walker’s predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle, campaigning on cutting the University of Wisconsin budget by $250 million and raising tuition 35% in two years to cover it? Was candidate Doyle in 2002 running around the state promising to raid the transportation fund and backfill it with debt? Of course not — but upon taking office, he thought he had to do these things to balance the budget.

In fact, the archetype of the lying politician is as ingrained in American politics as the sight of candidates kissing babies. Doyle promised never to raise taxes — yet he raised them by billions during his tenure. Candidate Barack Obama pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility — yet under President Obama, there it remains, providing the government with the intelligence it needed to catch Osama bin Laden.

And yet Walker isn’t being excoriated for going back on a promise; he’s being criticized simply for something he didn’t say. (Incidentally, plenty of unions were telling their members during the campaign that Walker was going to roll back their ability to bargain.) As if campaigns are measured, cautious affairs, where candidates put forth their plans and voters carefully measure each morsel of fiscal policy contained therein.

In reality, the Walker campaign was fighting off claims that he wanted to kill women by denying them mammograms.

Finally, would Walker really have not been elected had he proposed to limit union bargaining during the campaign? Face it, he would have won.

In a year where Republicans wiped Democrats off the face of the political map, winning control of the state Senate, the Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives and defeating liberal icon Senator Russ Feingold, do people actually believe Walker would have lost? Does someone want to call Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and ask him what he thinks?”

What the Supreme Court Election Means for School Funding in Wisconsin

chalkOn April 5th, Wisconsin will choose a new Supreme Court justice. While elections to the Court are normally nonpartisan affairs, this election is drenched in political bickering between Republicans, Democrats, and public employee unions.

Public union supporters argue that if incumbent conservative Justice David Prosser is defeated by liberal challenger Joanne Kloppenburg, the Court would then be fertile soil for a lawsuit overturning Scott Walker’s recent law limiting collective bargaining for government employees. They argue that the law was passed improperly, given the last-minute maneuvers by Senate Republicans to vote on the collective bargaining bill without three-fifths of the Senate members in attendance.

While the individuals thinking the law can be overturned in the courts are well-meaning, their chances are a longshot. The law paving the way for passage of the bill could not be more explicit. Pushing for the Court to take on Walker’s law might be a good fundraising ploy, but it most likely will fall short.

There is, however, a more serious potential court challenge Walker should fear, and it could rest entirely on the vote of Justice Prosser. Every few years, Wisconsinites can count on certain recurring events like clockwork – the Beatles will become fashionable again, citizens will be shocked to find out that eating right and exercising are the key to being skinny, and the state’s school aid formula will be challenged in court.

The last time Wisconsin’s $10 billion annual school funding framework was seriously challenged was in 2000, in the case of Vincent v. Voight. The case, brought by the state’s largest teachers’ union (WEAC), argued that Wisconsin’s school funding system did not adequately equalize funding among both “rich” and “poor” districts, as required by the state constitution. According to Article X, Section 3 of the Wisconsin Constitution, “district schools” had to be “as nearly uniform as practicable.”

By a slim majority, the Court held in Vincent that the current school equalization formula met the standard set forth in the state constitution. (Prosser, while in the majority, dissented in part because he thought the majority opinion favored the petitioners too much. He wrote that the majority opinion granted a heightened standard of equality not found in the Constitution – which he deemed “Equality Plus.”)

But the K-12 funding framework, while still in place, was hanging by a thin reed. Justice Crooks’ majority opinion almost openly invited further litigation.

For instance, Crooks wrote that one of the reasons the equalization formula was allowed to stand was due to the large funding increase the state had offered several years earlier:

“So long as the legislature is providing sufficient resources so that school districts offer students the equal opportunity for a sound basic education as required by the constitution, the state school finance system will pass constitutional muster.”

Scott Walker’s 2011-13 biennial budget necessarily reduces state funding to local school districts by over $900 million (much of which will be made up by increased pension and health care contributions from teachers). If the constitutionality of school funding formula hinges on the state providing “sufficient resources,” how will Walker’s budget affect the Court’s stated precedent?

The Vincent case arose at the same time a national movement pushing school funding “adequacy” was taking to state courts throughout the country. State Supreme Courts routinely mandated more school spending, in some cases increasing state spending by 20% simply through judicial fiat.

In November of 2006, New York’s highest court ordered the state to pay an additional $1.93 billion in the name of educational funding “equity.” In 2005, Kansas’ Supreme Court ordered the state to pay $148.4 million as a result of an “adequacy” lawsuit. That year alone, school finance systems in Texas, South Carolina, Idaho, Arkansas, and Kansas were deemed unconstitutional. Just this week, a judge in New Jersey found Governor Chris Christie’s education cuts failed to provide a “thorough and efficient” education for that state’s schoolchildren.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court could easily be one vote away from not only dismantling the current equalization formula, but overriding Scott Walker’s proposed funding shift to local school districts. With teachers’ unions having lost their ability to collect compulsory dues from their members, their power now shifts to the courts, which could mandate higher salaries and benefits in the name of “adequacy.”

And while she has been coy in many of her pre-election interviews, there is a reason they will be supporting Joanne Kloppenburg.

April 1, 2011

That Presidential Look: The 2012 GOP Presidential Crowd Gets a Makeover

combOn Nov. 2, Marco Rubio hadn’t yet been declared the winner of his Florida Senate race before the pundits began speculating on his move up the political ladder.

Some penciled him in as a vice presidential candidate in 2012; others thought he could actually be the GOP’s presidential nominee. The Fox News commentators fumed that it was an injustice that a new coin hadn’t already been released featuring the new senator’s visage. (Coming soon — the 15-cent Rubio.)

What would warrant Rubio’s instantaneous inclusion on a list of presidential candidates?

A look at the GOP’s presumed 2012 challengers gives us a hint. For one, this is one darn good-looking crowd. Close your eyes and think of the 2008 Republican presidential debates. The stage closely resembled the cantina in Star Wars. (“Sen. Greedo, the next question is for you.”)

The Republican stage in 2012 will look a lot better. Supernova Sarah Palin is the best example of the GOP’s aesthetic upgrade. Her folksiness has struck a chord with people who feel they’ve been left out of politics, but she’s also given voice to all those smoking-hot women who, tragically, have been ignored by society. (Thanks to Palin, you’re likely to hear questions like, “Sen. Brown, we know you have a sound deficit reduction plan, but have you ever wrestled a grizzly bear?”)

Mitt Romney will be back, he of the chin forged of a futuristic titanium alloy. It seems America could send Romney’s chin alone into Afghanistan and it would come back with Osama bin Laden in handcuffs.

And then there are the GOP’s up-and-comers — Thune, Bobby Jindal and Tim Pawlenty. All are under 50, fit and energetic. (Rumor has it Julian Assange was going to post a picture of Pawlenty’s former mullet, but figured it was just too embarrassing for the guy.)

Mike Huckabee will be in the mix, and granted, he’s not going to be named “Sexiest Man Alive” anytime soon. (Or even “Sexiest Ex-Arkansas governor.”) But even Huckabee recognized that he had to lose about 100 pounds — about two Pelosis — to be a plausible candidate in 2008.

Of course, it seems silly to pick our presidents based so heavily on superficial qualities. Yet as any student of history knows, characteristics unrelated to governing — looks, charisma, erudition — often play important roles in elections.

John Kennedy rode his movie-star looks to the White House. Even before he was elected, Ronald Reagan looked like he should be on Mount Rushmore. And who can forget the molten hot sexuality of Warren G. Harding?

In fact, only two years ago we witnessed what happens when aesthetics trumps qualifications. With only two years’ experience, the handsome Sen. Barack Obama descended from the mount to run for president. He spoke in a buttery baritone that exuded reassurance and seemed worthy, journalists thought, of being inscribed on scrolls made from the pulp of redwood trees.

Yet even with the stern voter rebuke of Obama’s first two years in office last November, the messianic fervor for the president continued unabated.

On Nov. 22, Newsweek portrayed Barack Obama as the six-armed Hindu god Shiva, deeming the president the “God of All Things.” They neglected to show his seventh arm, which would have been in your back pocket stealing all your Rubios.

Unfortunately, somewhere in America there’s a candidate who will never get a chance because he’s too fat, too swarthy or has a bad comb-over. Or maybe she’s a Mama Grizzly who actually resembles a mama grizzly.

Someday, we’ll elect someone cranky and irascible, who has a terrible hairpiece or bulbous nose, but a brilliant vision for America.

Until then, the GOP will have to make do with candidates who could easily be in the “Men and Women of Sound Monetary Policy 2012” calendar. Perhaps for aesthetic reasons alone, it’s best that neither the scrawny Paul Ryan nor the Rubenesque Chris Christie has any intention of running for president. (Standing on a stage together, they’d form the number 10.)

In the first debate, one can already anticipate Jim Lehrer’s opening questions:

“What is your policy regarding North Korea?”

“What needs to be done to keep Social Security solvent?”

“Can I touch your abs?”

The Wisconsin Public Union Protest Dictionary

dictionaryAs is the case with any extended crisis, the Wisconsin stalemate has begun to create its own vernacular. Previously familiar terms and phrases are used in foreign contexts. Words garner new meaning.

So when listening to politicians debate Governor Scott Walker’s plan to force greater public sector union contributions to their own health and pension benefits, it may be getting hard to understand – and not just because of the funny Wisconsin accents.

So as a service to the nation, here is a dictionary of many of the terms you are likely to hear as the Wisconsin showdown enters its third week:

“Workers” – Refers to any one of the 356,284 individuals in the state who receives a paycheck from any level of government. When a Democrat refers to the “workers” of Wisconsin, it is these people they are referencing. The remaining 86.6% of the Wisconsin population is to be met with suspicion, and is likely employed by the Koch brothers. (See also, “worker, hard.”)

“Democracy” – Traditionally described the process of people electing individuals to office, and those officials voting on their constituents’ behalf in the state legislature. Now refers to elected officials fleeing the state in order to avoid voting.

In order to test the veracity of this new definition, you are encouraged to sit on your couch all weekend with a sign that says “this is what mowing the lawn looks like.” If your wife agrees, she is likely in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda holding up a sign.

“Hosni Mubarak” – Little known dictator of some country somewhere in the Middle East. But his thugs beat up Anderson Cooper just a couple of weeks ago, so that’s probably enough to compare him to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

“Debate” – The process by which people who disagree get together, voice their differences, and compare each other to Hitler while wearing fanny packs. Wisconsin protesters have drawn inspiration from the historical Lincoln-Douglas debates, when Lincoln famously dressed up like a gorilla and banged a drum for eleven days to annoy Douglas into submission.

“Attacking” – Asking state and local employees to pay more of their health insurance premiums and to begin paying into their own pension accounts, which they will then recoup upon retirement. However, if the cost of government increases and taxpayers are forced to pay more, it is impermissible to consider it an “attack.” (See also: assaulting, strangling, pummeling, mauling, decapitating, disemboweling.)

“Interest Group” – Any collection of individuals that uses their own money to influence a public debate is known as an “interest group.” But be careful – if a similar group uses taxpayer money boosted through dues to do the same thing, it is known as a “grassroots organization.”

“Free Speech” – Commonly afforded individuals to express their political beliefs, “free speech” is now afforded to anyone who doesn’t work for Fox News, is interviewed by Fox News, has ever watched Fox News, or has ever admired the work of Michael J. Fox.

“Dictator” – Refers to either a genocidal despot or a duly elected governor acting in concert with elected members of two houses to affect changes in the law. The two are interchangeable.

“Middle Class” –Walker’s budget repair bill is a concerted effort to destroy Wisconsin’s middle class, as it is comprised entirely of individuals who work for government. Needless to say, it will be devastating to the state’s economy to ask more of the middle class – most notably, University of Wisconsin Madison professors who make $111,000 for working nine months out of the year.

“Stifling Debate” – The parliamentary procedure of allowing testimony of 900 citizens over the span of 17 hours, then letting the minority party members that haven’t fled the state talk for over 60 hours straight in order to hold up a bill’s passage.

“Doctor” – Traditionally, a “doctor” examined a patient, made a diagnosis, and treated their malady. In Wisconsin, that process is deemed unnecessary as long as the patient is beset by a rapidly growing pension contribution. (Common side effect: chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho” for four straight days.)

“God-Given Right” – Any law change beneficial to Wisconsin government workers granted after 1959. In most cases, these rights are not granted to federal workers living in Wisconsin, so it appears many of them need to spend more time in church.

Unfortunately, the one term nobody will be using any time soon in the state senate is “the ayes have it.” As a result, a lot of government workers will soon be learning what “unemployment compensation” is.

-February 28, 2011

Remembering Tomorrow’s Union Worker Protests, Today

protestVladimir Nabokov once wrote of the “stark lucidity of a future recollection.” He was describing the act of trying to see things that are happening right now as you will remember having seen them. (Of course, he was writing about one of his characters trying to envision killing his wife so he could have sex with her 12-year old daughter. But go with me here.)

That is how I’ve vowed to look at this week in Wisconsin state government. I’d love to bottle all the hysteria regarding Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget adjustment bill and bury it in the ground for future generations to one day gaze upon. With protests at the Capitol planned all week, I have taken it upon myself to document much of the government-funded hyperventilating taking place well in advance. (Side note: Are unions really making a case for their modern relevance when they’re still holding candlelight vigils? There really hasn’t been any new advancement in protesting technology in 40 years?)

Friday, February 11th, 2011 will be a day that lives forever in the annals of Wisconsin Hot Air History. The World Series of Buffoonery took place shortly after Walker announced his plan, when a gathering of Democrat lawmakers took turns out-embarrassing themselves at a hastily called press conference. (Watch it here – but don’t drink anything while you’re viewing it – your beverage will likely end up adorning your computer screen.)

In this press conference, we heard the seeds of what would become the major themes over the weekend. Assemblyman Joe Parisi – the living answer to the question “can anyone be elected to the state legislature?” – declared that Scott Walker is going to “call in the National Guard on the citizens of Wisconsin!”

Obviously, in Parisi’s world, the code words “National Guard” are supposed to give hippies flashbacks to the days of being clubbed and maced. But sadly, Parisi’s talking point is mere delusion. At his press conference, Walker mentioned the National Guard was ready to staff, say, the prisons if the correction officers were to engage in an illegal strike. But it didn’t stop the internet from being lit up with stories of how Walker was sending the National Guard to your house to tear gas your family.

Parisi finished up by urging not to “go to war” with the people of Wisconsin. By “the people,” I assume he doesn’t mean the 80% of citizens who agree that government workers should pay into their own pensions. (Actually, I should be nice to Parisi, as his name is on my marriage certificate from his days as Dane County Clerk. I think that gives him the unilateral power to dissolve my marriage.)

Not to be outdone, State Representative Gary Hebl strode to the microphone to call Walker’s plan to eliminate public sector collective bargaining on everything except wages “unheard of” and “unprecedented.” That’s true, assuming you forget the first 100 years of Wisconsin’s existence, when there was no collective bargaining for public employees.

Hebl forged on, comparing Walker to Hosni Mubarak, saying we have the “makings of a dictator” here in Wisconsin. (The strongest link between Walker and Mubarak is that Gary Hebl has heard of both of them.) I had cast aside this preposterous line as mere hyperbole, until some people who I really like (and should really know better) began using it. In fact, someone actually set up a website calling Walker Mubarak’s “mini-me.” (A reference only slightly fresher than candlelight vigils.)

Mark Pocan finished up the presser by actually making the points reasonable Democrats should be making about the bill. It overturns 50 years of settled law, it eliminates negotiation on things like worker safety and hours, etc. But then Pocan finished with a putrid cocktail of windbaggery, wrapping the National Guard and Mubarak talking points into one. (The day before, Pocan said the bill would return us to the days of the “Robber Barons.” Presumably, he spent the latter part of Friday bunkered down at home loading up his musket.)

The key to any anti-Walker talking point is to infuse it with some sort of violent metaphor. “Scott Walker is assaulting state workers.” “Scott Walker is taking a cleaver to the people of Wisconsin.” Certainly, those are more exciting than “Scott Walker wants state employees to pay slightly more into an account which will accrue over time, which they can then cash out when they retire.” That’s not exactly a talking point that gets people in Minocqua to hop on a bus to demonstrate in Madison.

But why are they pulling up so short? It’s time to start combining violent metaphors to get the full effect. “Scott Walker is dismembering state employees, then drowning them, then lighting them on fire, then telling them off-color jokes, then lighting them on fire again, then dropping them off a building, and then running over them with his car!” Now that’s a call to action.

If this doesn’t work, it always helps to play the Nazi card. It took the Teamsters over a half day to compare Walker to Hitler (what took so long?) – but their efforts fell somewhat short. In their letter to legislators, they spelled Hitler’s name “H-I-L-T-E-R.” When you’re comparing an elected Governor to a genocidal maniac, it really is just common courtesy to use spell check.

This is only slightly more sensical than the quote of the week so far, from State Senator Spencer Coggs of Milwaukee. Coggs said “The ghost of Martin Luther King must be rolling in his grave when he anticipates in the state of Wisconsin we’re going to have what, in effect, will be legalized slavery.”

Set aside, for a moment, the fact that slave pension benefits were probably slightly less generous than that of a Wisconsin state employee. It’s troubling that Coggs said MLK’s ghost was rolling around in his grave. Why would the ghost be hanging out in Dr. King’s grave with his body? Isn’t the whole benefit of being a ghost the ability to go float around, rattle chains and stuff? I know if I’m ever a ghost the last place I’ll want to be is in a smelly grave. Ghost me is hitting the nightclub looking for ghost honeys. Anyway.

Walker has said that if state workers don’t accept his fairly modest proposal, he will have to cut up to 6,000 state employees. Thus, it would seem that a vote against his bill would be a vote to lay off 6,000 workers. When I put it this way to some Democrat friends, they strongly objected, saying that there were loads of “other options” on the table for making up the $3.6 billion deficit.

Needless to say, I love being lectured by the party who had total control of state government for the past two years regarding ALL THESE OTHER options available to close the deficit. Apparently none of which they were willing to use, as they left Walker with a $3.6 billion hole to fill.
The best theory I’ve heard, however, is that of my friend (and editor) Bill Lueders, who thinks Walker’s plan all along was to goad government workers into demonstrating at the Capitol. Says Lueders: “Protests are exactly what Walker wants, because they can only lead to two outcomes: Either they are peaceful and accomplish nothing; or they turn violent and create a massive backlash against the unions and their members. Either way, Walker wins.”

Ah, yes – Walker is begging for violent protests to change the minds 20% of Wisconsinites who aren’t already with him. He is setting a trap for all the professional protesters in Madison into acting like fools to buttress his naked power grab. (Side note – if a protest in Madison gets violent, Egypt-style, what to people throw at each other? Fair trade coffee cups? Ironic eyewear?)

Sure, some union demonstrators may end up looking like idiots over the next few days. But most of the heavy lifting has already been done for them by their sympathetic politicians. Looking stupid is what they have lawmakers for.

So, people of the future, I hope this little internet time capsule finds you well. (And congratulations on my son leading the Green Bay Packers to their 13th Super Bowl title, over Brett Favre and the Shanghai Shooters.) Hopefully, your economy has improved a great deal under President Bieber.

When you hear about all the demonstrations at the State Capitol in 2011, this little post should give you a little idea what they were about. And if it seems a little strange that so many people were willing to protest being able to keep their jobs, you’re right. Seems strange in 2011, too. -February 14, 2011

Memo to America: Wisconsin’s in Charge

cheeseAs you watched the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers put the Atlanta Falcons back on the bus this weekend, you may have said to yourself “isn’t Green Bay in Wisconsin?” Then, the more politically astute may have said, “isn’t newly minted RNC chair Reince Priebus from Wisconsin?”

After another malty beverage and another Rodgers touchdown, the politically deranged may have said, “isn’t new House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan from Wisconsin?”

And after Rodgers’ third touchdown, those of you named “Michael Barone” might have thought to yourself, “isn’t Wisconsin the only state to have flipped both houses of the legislature, the governor’s office, a U.S. Senate seat and two House seats to red?”

At that point, you might have said to yourself (hopefully you’re not saying this all out loud) “What exactly is this ‘Wisconsin’ I keep hearing so much about?”

I checked Wikipedia, and this is what I came up with:

“Wisconsin” is a state in the Midwest, rumored to be between Michigan and Minnesota. When a movie screenplay writer makes a character from Wisconsin, it is intended to signal that the character had a solid Midwestern upbringing. (Even homicidal oil baron Daniel Plainview hailed from Fond du Lac before he started drinking other peoples’ milkshakes.)

Wisconsin has given birth to national figures of vastly disparate political views. (The only things on which all residents agree is that Illinois sucks and God probably plays poker with Vince Lombardi.) It is a state where the fathers of noted liberal Senator Russ Feingold and noted conservative Congressman Paul Ryan once shared the same law office building in Janesville. It is the home of “Fighting Bob” LaFollette and Joseph McCarthy. William Rehnquist and Gaylord Nelson. Chris Farley and Heather Graham. Joanie and Chachi.

During the reign of Governor Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin was on the cutting edge of conservative government reforms. It has been a national leader in welfare reform, and has the nation’s oldest functioning private school choice program. Yet Wisconsin is also the first state to begin collecting an income tax (in 1911), and became the first state to allow collective bargaining for public employees in 1959. It has the distinction of being the birthplace of both the Republican Party and AFSCME.

It is a state where you’re more likely to get action on a first date if you take a girl bowling than if you take her to a fancy dinner. It’s a state where it’s so cold, you can’t leave the house for three months out of the year – and if you do, it’s to drill a hole in the ice and sit immobile for days while you try to catch fish (or until you run out of beer.) The state capital of Madison has a statue of former Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez (author of four Rose Bowl trips) but not of its namesake (author of the U.S. Bill of Rights.)

Recently, United Nations inspectors discovered the presence of “fried cheese curds” in Wisconsin, which the state had previously fought to keep top secret. Unleashing this delicacy on the nation would trigger an arterial armaggedon, likely trimming the U.S. population by 37% within one year. (Merely saying the words “fried cheese curds” out loud has been known to cause heart murmurs.)

Wisconsin’s most recent heyday occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when its sports teams ruled the national landscape and its breweries cranked out enough beer to inebriate the nation. (If you’re an ugly American male who ended up smooching on a girl out of your league between 1930 and 1985… Milwaukee says, “you’re welcome.”)

Yet in the past decade, the state has fallen on hard times. Breweries have closed and jobs have fled Milwaukee as if the city was the kid in school with head lice. Politicians looked on with disinterest (or from prison) as the city’s education system decayed badly. (Meanwhile, the Milwaukee teachers’ union put their finger on the reason for the spike in illiteracy – the fact that their health plan didn’t cover Viagra.)

Overseeing this debacle was Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, whose greatest accomplishment in eight years of office was once completing a sudoku puzzle entirely in pen.

Yet with the election of 2010, Wisconsin has assumed its place on the front burner of conservative politics. New Governor Scott Walker has already been prominently featured in the New York Times for his willingness to challenge public employee unions over their generous benefit packages. Priebus will be a leading figure in the 2012 presidential elections, which Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and others are urging fiscal dreamboat Paul Ryan to enter. On his way to to Congress, former “Real World” star Sean Duffy managed to get an astounding 100% of the vote from 38-year old women. These are definitely good days to be a Cheesehead. So don’t worry, America – we’re taking the wheel. All we ask is that you cheer for the Packers.

(And if you don’t, we’re unleashing the weapons-grade cheese curds.)

-January 18, 2011

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