Hitherto, when this university town and seat of state government applauded itself as “the Athens of the Midwest,” the sobriquet suggested kinship with the cultural glories of ancient Greece. Now, however, Madison resembles contemporary Athens.
This capital has been convulsed by government employees sowing disorder in order to repeal an election. A minority of the minority of Wisconsin residents who work for government (300,000 of them) are resisting changes to benefits that most of Wisconsin’s 5.6 million residents resent financing.
Serene at the center of this storm sits Republican Scott Walker, 43, in the governor’s mansion library, beneath a portrait of Ronald Reagan. Walker has seen this movie before.
As Milwaukee County executive, he had similar dust-ups with government workers’ unions, and when the dust settled, he was resoundingly reelected, twice. If his desire to limit collective bargaining by such unions to salary issues makes him the “Midwest Mussolini” – some protesters did not get the memo about the new civility – other supposed offenses include wanting state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pension plans (most pay less than 1 percent), which would still be less than the average in the private sector. He also wants them to pay 12.6 percent of the cost of their health care premiums – up from about 6 percent but still much less than the private-sector average.
A few days after President Obama submitted a budget that would increase the federal deficit, he tried to sabotage Wisconsin’s progress toward solvency. The Washington Post: “The president’s political machine worked in close coordination . . . with state and national union officials to mobilize thousands of protesters to gather in Madison and to plan similar demonstrations in other state capitals.” Walker notes that in the 1990s, Wisconsin was a trendsetter regarding school choice and welfare reform. Obama, he thinks, may be worried that Wisconsin might again be a harbinger.
He also thinks Obama’s intervention demonstrates why presidents should serve apprenticeships as governors. He says that Obama, in the Illinois Legislature and the U.S. Senate, “was a liberal among liberals,” and liberals are his base, and his staff comes from it. Governors, Walker says, get used to considering the interests of broad constituencies.
First, the Democratic Party is the party of government, not only because of its extravagant sense of government’s competence and proper scope, but also because the party’s base is government employees. Second, government employees have an increasingly adversarial relationship with the governed. Third, Obama’s “move to the center” is fictitious.
Read More: By George F. Will, Washington Post