Until a year or so ago, few national reporters were paying attention to the activities of Wisconsin’s Republican elected officials. However, in 2011, it appears that the Badger State (which, in recent years, has gone Democratic in presidential elections and was the home of Senator Robert “fighting Bob” LaFollette, the progressive legend who ran for President in the early 1900s to the left of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt) has suddenly become the center of the GOP universe and has produced three Republican leaders that are making a difference in three unique ways.
First, there is Congressman Paul Ryan, who, according to Paul Gigot of the WALL STREET JOURNAL, “. . . doesn’t look like the menacing sort. He’s amiable in a familiar Midwestern way . . . and he uses words like “gosh.” (February 19, 2011 edition). Yet the Democrats refer to him in almost daily press releases as “the evil genius, the cruel and mad budget cutter who threatens grandma’s health care, granddad’s retirement, and the entitlement state as we know it.” Then, there is Reince Priebus, the former Chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, who led his party to unprecedented gains in the state legislature and the successful defeat of prominent U.S. Senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin’s 2010 state and congressional elections. Priebus recently replaced Michael Steele as the Chairman of the debt-ridden Republican National Committee.
The new Chairman recently attended a fund-raiser in Jackson, Mississippi, where he announced that the RNC would not only put its financial house in order but would embark on a crusade to “save the country” in 2012. I was impressed with his earnest and sincere demeanor on that occasion and believe that he means what he says.
Finally, of course, we have newly-elected Governor Scott Walker, a 43-year-old former county executive, who, according to Robert Costa in his March 21, 2011, NATIONAL REVIEW article, is compared by protestors to Adolph Hitler, Hosni Mubarek, and Darth Vader. On the other hand, national syndicated columnist George Will has observed that Governor Walker’s compelling and unflinching arguments for fiscal prudence in Wisconsin state government “called up the ghosts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who so famously tangled with union bosses three decades ago.” In fact, Wisconsin’s legislative fight over the budget, and the accompanying outcry from state employees’ unions has emerged as “the definitive state-level budget battle in the Age of Obama.” Walker is suddenly a nationally recognized fiscal hawk and, to many Republicans, a hero. His actions in Wisconsin have strengthened the resolve of Republican leaders in several other states who are dealing with union-fueled uprisings as they grapple with budget gaps and fiscal uncertainty.
Walker’s plan in Wisconsin asked state employees (who contribute generously to the campaigns of friendly legislators responsible for their funding) to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health premiums. He also called for legislation limiting collective bargaining for most government employees to wages alone (excluding pensions and other benefits). The resulting reaction from the left was immediate and dramatic.
Jill Bakken, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin, opined, “State employees are shocked and bewildered about how 50 years of labor peace can be unraveled by a governor who has been in office for six weeks.” Her fellow Democrats quickly mobilized and three days later, 20,000 protestors converged on the state capitol grounds. Teachers abandoned their schools in protest and schools were shut down across the state. “We are the mighty teachers” one group proclaimed. “We teach the children,” roared another. All 14 Democrat state senators left the state in order to prevent a quorum of Senators being present to consider the Governor’s proposals. Meanwhile, upwards of 70,000 protestors attended one rally at the capitol over the weekend. Samuel “Joe the Plummer” Wurzelbacher also appeared at that rally in support of the Governor. “Recall them all,” he said.
The drama in Wisconsin is not over. The budget battle is now in the courts and “recall” petitions are circulating all over Wisconsin, asking that both Democrats and Republicans relinquish their legislative posts. The unions are even mobilizing their forces to defeat an incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge in his re-election bid, who they fear might vote against them when the budget battle (now pending in the state’s trial courts) reaches the high court.
What is happening in Wisconsin is, to some extent, foreign to what we are used to in Mississippi, where collective bargaining by state employees is not allowed and “right-to-work” laws are embedded in the state constitution. Meanwhile, in the Badger State, Costa reports that Governor Walker “shrugs off” the cries of the protestors. “These tens of thousands of protestors have the right to be heard,” he says. “But there are 5.5 million people in this state, and those taxpayers have a right to be heard. I, for one, am not going to let the protestors overshadow, or shout out, the interest of the state’s taxpayers. And I believe they are with us in trying to balance this budget.”
My goodness. That does sound like Reagan and Thatcher.