Wisconsin Republicans Are Shooting Themselves in the Foot

My friend Scott Walker should not sign the power-grabbing legislation.

Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters

The Wisconsin GOP’s lame-duck power play was not the death of democracy. But it was bad enough: petty, vindictive, and self-destructive. It was, as the saying goes, worse than a crime. It was a blunder.

And for what?

In its arrogant insularity, the Wisconsin GOP became a national symbol of win-at-all-costs, norms-be-damned politics. Cut through the overwrought rhetoric and what did the Republican legislators actually accomplish? Not really a whole lot; certainly not enough to justify the political damage they’ve inflicted on themselves. They have managed to energize the progressive base, expose themselves as sore losers, and undermine crucial democratic norms. And in return … they got extraordinarily little.

Let’s break it down.

Meeting through the night, legislators voted to restrict early voting, an unsubtle response to the massive turnout in the Democratic strongholds of Dane and Milwaukee Counties that helped Democrats sweep the statewide ballot on November 6. But the attack on early voting will likely be struck down by the courts. Indeed, their similar effort in 2016 was ruled unconstitutional.

They also blocked incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit against Obamacare. But whether Wisconsin is listed on the suit will have no effect at all on the pending litigation, which could threaten guaranteed coverage of preexisting conditions. The GOP then proceeded to dig itself a deeper hole by defeating legislation designed to provide some protection for people with preexisting conditions—should the lawsuit succeed—despite outgoing Republican Governor Scott Walker’s repeated promises to enact such a measure.

That issue contributed mightily to the party’s losses in November, and the legislature’s action ensures that health care will remain a liability for the GOP going into 2020.

More substantively, GOP legislators limited the new governor’s ability to seek waivers from federal programs and codified Walker’s new work requirements for Medicaid recipients. They also sharply limited the role of the newly elected Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul, by giving the legislature control over lawsuits involving the state and by giving legislators the authority to hire private attorneys to defend state laws.

The rest? A grab bag of legislative fixes, bureaucratic rules, and power shifts, some good, some odd, but all mostly small bore.

Truth be told, Republicans can mount a case for all of this, starting with precedent. Eight years ago, Democrats under former Governor Jim Doyle tried to use a lame-duck session to ratify state-employee union contracts that would have greatly limited Walker’s flexibility. Republicans remember how the Democrats, desperate for a win, brought back a disgraced state representative named Jeff Wood to vote on the contracts. Wood was actually still serving a jail term for his repeated drunk-driving arrests and used his work-release privileges to cast a crucial vote. (The measure ultimately failed in the state Senate.)

Republicans can also argue that they were merely affirming the powers of a co-equal branch of government (something their counterparts in Washington might wish to emulate.) Their case, however, is weakened by their lack of concern for excessive executive powers prior to the November 6 election. In any case, they have big majorities in both legislative chambers and will be able to provide a powerful check on the incoming governor after he is sworn in, even without the last-minute legislation. In other words, the lame-duck bill only marginally increases their preexisting legislative clout.

Perhaps aware of the de minimis nature of some of the measures, they have been quick to accuse their critics of hysterical overreaction. “You are so grossly exaggerating the words of this bill, it makes me sick,” complained one of the architects of the legislation, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Walker, for his part, has expressed support for the last-minute legislation and is widely expected to sign most, if not all, of it.

But—and I write this as a longtime friend of Walker—that would be a huge mistake. Signing the lame-duck legislation would be an especially classless way for Walker to leave office; it will tarnish his reputation in ways that I’m not sure he grasps. And, frankly, it’s just not worth it.

Walker, obviously, is not one to walk away from a scuffle. His confrontation with union power made him a national figure, and he is not likely to be intimidated by either protesters or critics. But that fight was about something consequential. This one is only about tribalism and a petty will to power.

A strong argument could be made that Walker—and people like me who supported him—helped shape our divisive and toxic political environment. Walker has an opportunity here to redeem his reputation.

He should think about how the country is eulogizing President George H. W. Bush. One of the defining moments of Bush’s political career was his last: the way he responded to his bitter defeat. The letter he left for his successor, Bill Clinton, was not merely gracious but an important affirmation of the continuity of America’s democratic norms. “Your success now is our country’s success,” he wrote. “I am rooting hard for you.”

Today that generosity seems wildly discordant. For the moment, the Trumpist style of smash-mouth, red-versus-blue, play-to-your-base politics is ascendant. What’s happening now in Wisconsin, and similar moves in Michigan, will only escalate the cycle of hyper-partisanship. Polarization is likely to get worse before it gets better.

I started with a saying and I’ll end with another: “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” It has to stop somewhere. I’d love for it to be in Wisconsin.