In 2008, 56 percent of Wisconsin voters supported Barack Obama for president. In 2009, Wisconsin's Democratic governor and Democratic Legislature passed legislation that raised taxes and fees by about $1.2 billion over three years. State lawmakers approved the bill on the very day it was introduced, with no public hearing. Remember that.
In 2011, the tables have turned. The Assembly has 60 Republicans to 38 Democrats, and the state Senate is weighted 19 Repubs to 14 Dems. GOP Gov. Scott Walker has inherited a budget shortfall that is expected to grow to $3.6 billion over the next two-year budget. He has presented a budget-repair plan that would require most public employees to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their (very generous by private standards) pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. The state is broke, Walker argues, and by essentially cutting workers' compensation by 7 percent, he hopes to avoid layoffs.
Walker's plan also would curb public employees' collective bargaining.
GOP supporters point to the vast chasm between private-sector and public-employee unions: Private-sector unions don't get to pick with whom they negotiate; public-employee unions do, which is why there are no brakes on runaway government spending. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed collective bargaining for government employees.
Besides, as Democrats used to say fondly, elections have consequences.
Walker had the votes to pass his budget-fixer bill. The Dems did not. So, rather than lose in a fair vote, 14 Democratic senators fled the state in order to prevent the quorum necessary to pass Walker's package.
It has been instructive to watch California Democrats reacting to the Wisconsin rout. For years, I've had to listen to them moan about the tyranny of the two-thirds threshold needed to raise taxes and the cheek of Republicans who voted against budgets with tax increases. Now Wisconsin Dems take a powder, and suddenly, those concerns about the minority party having too much power melt away.
Ditto the sermons on civility.
If you've followed the drama, you've seen the signs comparing the governor to Hitler and ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Speaking at a labor rally in Boston, Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., said that sometimes it's necessary to "get a little bloody." And you know about the teachers who skipped school -- and forced schools to close -- in order to protest those lawmakers who weren't playing hooky.
Many of the players have not been a credit to their cause -- which may explain why union leaders, who initially balked at Walker's compensation cuts, budged. They understood that the public wasn't buying the argument that their resistance was not about money.
Now they say the fight is over something bigger than money -- and now they're right.
"This is all about power," Democratic pollster Paul Maslin told me from his Madison, Wis., home. "This is all about busting the unions; this is all about (Walker) giving himself national prominence." As far as Maslin is concerned, Walker has crossed the Rubicon.
If Walker's move simply were about balancing the budget, his critics now argue, he would cut a deal and move on.
Conservative Milwaukee talk-show host Charlie Sykes agreed. When I asked him if Wisconsin Republicans are trying to turn off the spigot of political donations from public-employee unions, Sykes answered, "Absolutely."
Badger State Democrats fled Madison, Sykes added, because "they see this as a real threat to the mother lode of campaign cash. The left is going to have to raise money the old-fashioned way: voluntarily."
I tell Sykes that if I were Walker, I'd take the benefits concessions and declare victory. One of my beefs with the right is that conservatives often don't know how to take "yes" as an answer.
I'd look at the 2008 vote, at how quickly cheeseheads can pivot to the other side of the aisle, and I'd also be afraid of overplaying my hand, as the right frequently does.
Maslin isn't convincing when he complains about Republicans trying to jam through a bill in one day. (See above.)
He is more convincing when he looks at 2008 and assures me that some of the 19 GOP state senators are afraid: "There's a tough thing going on here. I would say the 14 (Dems) are feeling much better for what they've done than some of the 19 (Repubs)."
But Sykes tells me that when the Madison story went national, Wisconsin conservatives saw an opportunity that may never come again. Their resolve hardened.
"The country is on the edge of a precipice," he explained. He would have expected to see Republican lawmakers get weak-kneed by now. Instead, they're thinking, "We've got to decide right now. Are we going to become Michigan? Are we going to become California? Or are we going to turn things around?
"Nobody is in the mood to go for the half-measures."
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