Cheez Whiz in Wisconsin

By on April 3, 2012

All eyes today are on the state of Wisconsin, cheese-making capital of the US. Republicans have been at pains recently to try to show that their presidential primary race is finally over. Rick Santorum, the last man standing between Romney and his coronation, is still kicking up a fight in the dairy state. He has succeeded in pulling Romney way over to the right during his struggle to lock up the nomination. He has even suggested Barak Obama might be preferable to Mitt as he rattles away on the campaign trail. If the former Pennsylvania Senator could pull out an upset tonight, he would easily be crowned the comeback kid of any year and give party regulars severe indigestion. That however seems unlikely.

Wisconsin has other cheese in the churn. The governor there Scott Walker, elected in 2010, lost no time ramming bills aimed at reducing benefits for public workers through the state legislature. He clearly caught Democrats by surprise with his full frontal, bare-knuckle attack. At one point Democratic state legislators fled across state lines to thwart a quorum. Walker sent the state police out to round them up.

Whatever you think of the governor’s cause and his tactics, the spectacle got plenty of national attention, only to be compounded when a trickster posing as one of the Koch brothers got Walker on the phone and lured him into some embarrassing statements that ended up on the Internet. Democrats later tried to recall some of the Republican legislators complicit in Walker’s scheme, but fell just short of reversing the balance of power in the Madison legislature.

Unions joined the fight early. They were successful however in circulating petitions to get Walker and his lieutenant governor into a recall vote this June. The task appears to have been accomplished quite easily. Walker has called upon his backers across the country to come to his rescue. Plenty of out-of-state money is now pouring into Wisconsin to both sides to fuel a real wing-ding come June. Wisconsinites will feel under siege until this ends.

The outcome is uncertain. Many there still recall the scenes of their state flooded with dueling demonstrators, the capital bludgeoned into paralysis as Walker’s anti-Labor measures came to a final vote. Americans are never happy when any side brings government to a screechy halt. It signals a failure of legislative and executive systems. Newt Gingrich found this out when he played chicken with Clinton in 1995 and shut down the government in Washington for several days. It backfired on him. Wisconsin faces looked no happier when their government froze up last year. It proved an impetuous and risky gamble by a rather humorless and ambitious politician, flexing his yet undeveloped muscle. Voters await the promised pay-off in revenue.

My guess is that even if Governor Walker survives this recall vote, he has compromised his authority in the state. When voters elected him, I doubt they thought they were giving the green-light to turn the state into a circus. The spectacle made its architects look mean-spirited, no matter how they justified the end result. Voters want office holders to work it out, not fight it out.

How this figures into the Republican primary between Romney and Santorum today is anyone’s guess. Romney is again pouring millions into the contest to Santorum’s thousands. The dog days of winter 2011 will certainly be fresh in the minds of voters. Walker is an ideologue like Santorum, though he has fallen in line and endorsed Romney. Neither Romney or Santorum is doing particularly well with women voters these days.Wisconsin has never been safely in the GOP column. Some of the progressive spirit of Minneapolis has always spilled across the border.

Somewhere in the US tonight I suspect Tim Pawlenty, the ex-governor of neighboring Minnesota is privately kicking himself for exiting the contest when he did. He was an uninspiring campaigner but not an accident-prone one. If he had hung on longer, he might have emerged the Big Cheese in Tampa, by default, as he was leaving Wisconsin.


Tom Godfrey

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