Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Republican Wisconsin Gift to the Democrats

On June 30, 1863, a small group of Confederate soldiers looking for, not Union troops, but something more important, shoes, encountered a unit of federal cavalry at the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Not planning on battle, the Confederates pulled back. But the next morning, they conducted a reconnaissance in force to ascertain the number and intentions of the enemy, and quickly found themselves embroiled in fighting. Although the battle was unplanned, both sides poured in reinforcements, and more than 160,000 men were eventually thrown into the fray. Historians generally see the outcome of that unintended battle as the turning point of the Civil War.

This past week, demonstrations erupted in Madison, Wisconsin to protest proposed Republican legislation that would strip many thousands of public sector union members of bargaining rights. Although connected to budget balancing legislation, the proposed rollback of union rights went much farther than cutting near term expenses. It, in essence, would permanently reduce compensation and benefits to numerous public sector employees. Not surprisingly, unions and their Democratic allies in the Wisconsin state legislature, saw this measure as a ploy to reduce their economic and political power.

Demonstrators, in numbers not seen in Madison probably since the massive antiwar demonstrations protesting Richard Nixon's 1972 decision to renew the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, poured into the State Capitol. Local and national news media sent in almost as many reporters. Democratic state senators, badly outnumbered by their Republican colleagues, slipped over the border to Illinois, depriving the state Senate of the quorum needed to enact the proposed bill. Although indefinitely condemned to dine at hotel buffets and fast food outlets, the sojourning Democratic legislators brought the Republican juggernaut to an abrupt halt.

It's a great news story, and a gift to the Democrats. Battered by last fall's electoral losses, the Democrats have been struggling for any kind of foothold in today's political morass. President Obama's back door tax deal with Republicans last fall only made things more difficult for the liberal wing of his party. But Wisconsin's newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker overplayed his hand, trying not only to balance the budget but also to deprive state employees of the ability to negotiate for a share of the prosperity when economic conditions improve in the future.

The Wisconsin Republicans surely didn't plan on a national political spectacle in Madison, nor could the Wisconsin Democrats have expected one. But, like the unplanned Battle of Gettysburg, events in Madison have spiraled into a national confrontation. Now, Democratic leaders of all varieties can cash in on the media fest. Union president Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO got the opportunity to make a televised appearance expressing his outrage. The Reverend Jesse Jackson made a quick trip up to Madison from Chicago, appeared at a rally and burnished his now aging luster. President Obama, seeing an opportunity to repair some of the damage he did to his relationship with liberals, condemned the Republican legislation. Even disgraced Congressman Charlie Rangel made an appearance on Fox News, getting an opportunity to rehabilitate his tarnished image by speaking up for political allies. Union members in several other states considering similar legislation have rallied the troops and are planning protests of their own. The media circus will continue, providing more publicity for the Democrats.

The Democrats needed a rallying point, and now they have it. Whether or not Governor Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans have their way in the end, the Democrats have been re-energized. The Wisconsin Republicans wanted to destroy Democratic power, and learned the hard way that people fight back strenuously when they're threatened with destruction. Walker, in a moment of exceptional political clumsiness, aggravated his situation by alluding to deployment of the Wisconsin National Guard, thus evoking some of the most controversial moments of American labor history. The political independents who voted Republican last fall are mostly middle income people who have little trouble empathizing with the middle income teachers affected by Walker's bill. Crushing them, with even just an allusion to the national guard, brings back cultural memories of goons and strikebreakers that would only swing allegiances over to the Democrats.

Even if the Republicans succeed, they will have created a large group of martyrs, who will be celebrated in song by latter day Pete Seegers and Joan Baez's. And the Democratic senators taking an odyssey to Illinois have become heroes who will be well-remembered in the next electoral cycle. If the Democratic senators force the Republicans to bargain, Walker will have his balanced budget but appear to have been defeated. It's a win-win for the Democrats.

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