Wisconsin: Degenerating Quickly Into the Muck

by Stuart Rothenberg March 4, 2011 · 11:15 AM EST

Forget all that talk about civility, bipartisanship and a new tone in politics. The fight over public service unions and collective bargaining that is taking place in Wisconsin has already degenerated into the muck. That’s what happens when a major political fight is taking place.

Politics is one of the few places where you can say incontrovertibly inaccurate things and nobody raises an eyebrow. In fact, it’s often the case that the more outrageous you are, the more attention you get.

Judging from the signs in Madison, more than a few people seem to think Gov. Scott Walker (R) is a dictator.

Now, you don’t have to like Walker. You can believe that his goal is busting the public service sector unions. You can think that his proposal is unfair, unwarranted or even truly outrageous. You can work to persuade state legislators to reject his proposal or impeach him. But you need to go back to high school if you actually think he is a dictator.

Just normal political exaggeration by angry people? Yes, certainly, just like the people with signs who compared the governor to Adolf Hitler and Hosni Mubarak. (Or, for that matter, just like the tea party folks who scream that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country.)

But couldn’t the sign-makers think of something that was actually both accurate and derogatory?

Defenders of the Democratic state Senators’ effort to get Walker to change his stance by hiding out in Illinois say that the governor’s assault on the state’s public sector unions is so important that it justifies, even requires, such a dramatic action.

Imagine what those same folks would have said if Republicans had taken some sort of similar step to prevent Congressional Democrats from voting on the stimulus or health care reform. They would have gone bananas, as they should have.

Democrats have bashed Republicans for the past couple of years as the “party of no” for opposing many of Obama’s legislative initiatives. But at least Republicans played within the rules — delaying action as long as they could but letting the legislative process run its course if or when they couldn’t stop the consideration of bills through normal parliamentary channels.

I get tired of hearing conservatives complain about the liberal domination of the media, but can you image what the coverage of Wisconsin would be like in the national media if Republicans were hiding out so that Democrats couldn’t pass their agenda?

You don’t have to like what Scott Walker is trying to do in Wisconsin to think that the Democratic state Senators are terribly wrong in refusing to fight where they were elected to fight — in the Legislature.

That said, the fight in Wisconsin is, at least in one important way, great news for Democrats and organized labor.

As one veteran Democrat with ties to organized labor told me recently, “This is the best thing that has happened to [the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees] in a dozen years. All of a sudden, this splintered group facing a leadership fight and without a mission has a rallying point that it didn’t have a few weeks ago.”

Regardless of whether you agree with the governor’s goals, he almost certainly made a tactical mistake by saying that he would not negotiate with his Democratic adversaries.

Americans like the idea that people who disagree can sit down and discuss their differences like adults. Unlike the folks in the tea party, most Americans like the concept of compromise because it signals reasonableness.

Walker also didn’t handle things well when the unions agreed to the givebacks that he demanded. He hasn’t explained nearly as clearly and effectively as he needed to why changes in collective bargaining are also necessary.

Democrats like the poll numbers they are seeing out of the Badger State, and they hope that this strengthens the resolve of Democratic legislators in Wisconsin but also around the country.

But current polling doesn’t mean much. Walker won’t face voters again until 2014, while the Democratic Senators who survived the 2010 GOP wave undoubtedly come from such Democratic districts that they have support back home.

It’s hard to predict how the standoff will end.

Walker needs to appear reasonable without also appearing to cave in to the demands of Democratic legislators. And Democrats must still be concerned about what Republican legislators will do in their absence and what the governor’s next step will be.

The one thing both sides agree on is that there is a great deal at stake in Wisconsin.

Political strategists understand that if Republicans “win” in the Badger State, other GOP governors and legislatures will be emboldened to take on public service unions. And as everyone knows, those unions have become the heart and soul of both the labor movement and the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, if Walker backs off his position, other Republican governors with weaker backbones are likely to shy away from a similar confrontation, preferring to accept short-term concessions but understanding that they would not be changing the fundamental political realities.