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Howard Schweber

Howard Schweber

Posted: February 17, 2011 09:27 PM

Madison, WI -- In the past two weeks, we have gotten used to hearing the phrase "Day of Rage" applied to cities across the Arab Middle East. Today, it was hard not to draw an analogy between those cities and Madison, WI. Not that anyone resisted the metaphor particularly: Congressman Ryan said, "it's like Cairo has moved to Madison" while protesters carried sign reading "Walker like an Egyptian." 30,000 protesters, that is, who filled all the floors of the Capitol building and the entire city square that surrounds it. Glenn Beck says the Madison protests are part of the same "spread of evil" that has gripped the Middle East. Uh huh.

There were moments of slightly slapstick drama. There are 19 Republican members of the State Senate out of 33 total, one too few for a quorum. All the Democrats fled the state -- they were last heard of in Rockford, Illinois -- but the rumor all day was that one Democrat didn't make it and remains barricaded in his office, protected from the intervention of state police by protesters. In between following events downtown, I taught a class this afternoon: 20 out of 150 students turned up to discuss the First Amendment, and we spent most of the time on the protests. As for the other 130, most of them were at the Capitol.

What drove all of this? Simple: Republican overreach. Since the November elections, Republicans in Congress and in state houses across the country have been declaring themselves the recipients of a popular mandate to do everything from repealing the Affordable Health Care Act to taking drastic steps to cut spending by destroying public sector unions. The problem is that the poll data from the actual election suggests no such thing. Exit polls suggested that actual voters were split roughly evenly: asked to name the highest priority for the new Congress, 37% chose "spending to create jobs"; 40% said "reducing the deficit."

None of which is to suggest that reducing deficits was not a high voter priority, it was just not quite an at-all-costs, cult-like devotion to absolutely anyone who said he could reduce deficits no matter the means.

Enter Scott Walker. Newly-elected GOP governor of Wisconsin with GOP control of both houses, it is understandable that he didn't think he had to ask for permission. But this was way, way over the top, both in terms of procedure and substance.

In terms of procedure, it does not play well to announce a radical bill that will devastate long-standing promises of economic security and then allow only three days for debate before the final vote on ratification. Asked why he did not give the unions even an opportunity to negotiate, Walker's answer joins the litany of the greats along with Richard Daley, Sr., and Huey Long: "To those who say why didn't I negotiate on this? I don't have anything to negotiate with. We don't have anything to give. Like practically every other state in the country, we're broke. And it's time to pay up."

That position was slightly undercut by his insistence that the only alternative would be to lay off 6,000 state workers. It does not quite do to insist that there is nothing about which to negotiate and then to identify a point of negotiation in the very next sentence. All of that, of course, was right before he said that the National Guard is standing by to intervene if public employees try to strike.

In terms of substance, it is hard to know where to begin. Walker's "Repair the Budget" bill is primarily a union-busting measure, many of whose provisions have no fiscal consequences at all. The bill requires public employees to make contributions to pensions and the costs of health care, but union representatives insist that they have no objections to those provisions. They insist that what they care about is the curtailing of collective bargaining rights. But maybe they should read the bill again. Here's a particularly juicy bit:

"Wages would include only total base wages and would exclude any other compensation, including, but not limited to, overtime, premium pay, merit pay, performance pay, supplemental compensation, pay schedules, and automatic pay progressions [emphasis mine]."

In other words, the entire salary grid for teachers would be thrown out, and school districts would be free to define and implement new salary systems from scratch. That's in addition to giving the administration unprecedented authority to redefine Medicaid eligibility (but only downward), and enough other material to fill 144 pages.

Scott Walker thought he could do absolutely anything he wanted to do. He truly thought that his election and the election of Republican majorities in the state Assembly and Senate meant an endorsement of absolutely every impulse, theory, and political vendetta that he felt like expressing. Numerous reports say that Republican legislators were shocked at the level of protest. They had better get used to it -- I don't think these demonstrations are going away. What's going on in Wisconsin, in other words, is what is going on in the country at large. Republicans were elected by promising to focus on creating new jobs and nothing else. Once in office, they focused on pretty much everything and anything other than creating jobs, only to discover that the voters had been listening all along. By 2012 I would not be at all surprised to find Republican candidates for office in Wisconsin trying desperately to deny that they ever heard of Governor Walker, assuming his term lasts that long.

We're not Egyptians, it turns out -- we won't wait 30 years to make our objections known. That was a tough lesson for the Democrats in November, and just three months later it's turning out to be a tough lesson for Republicans as well. What can I say? This is American democracy, the big leagues. Welcome to the show.