Wisconsin Battle With Gov. Scott Walker Should Spur Democrats

Though they lost, Wisconsin Dems forced Gov. Scott Walker to show his real motive: busting unions.

By + More

The "Wisconsin 14" state senators who left the state to save it from a new governor are all profiles in courage. Even though they lost, they gave us pause and cause to reflect on the state of our political souls.

So I got to thinking: Those 14 showed more true team spirit than Democrats have here in Washington, stretching back to once upon a time past my bedtime, somewhere in a rosy memory shelved in a Library of Congress vault. [See photos of the protests in Madison, Wis.]

To be fair, House Democrats have claimed the lion's share of team spirit and backbone, compared to the calculating Senate Democrats, during Barack Obama's presidency. Let's face it, the coolly composed president himself is a bit short on this kind of force. So he should turn to his friends in the House more often to get energized in the old-school way. Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis will walk side by side and shout into the wind for him any day, any way.  

Like the Wisconsin 14, Lewis knows what it's like when politics get personal, since he was beaten on the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., alongside Martin Luther King Jr., back in the days that are like a dream. [See the U.S. News debate: Should public union workers have collective bargaining rights.]

If I had to say, put down the mid-1960s, during the Lyndon B. Johnson era, as the last time when Democrats were fightin' proud to be Democrats. On that we can agree, the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were ideas that advanced us forward together. They made America more American, to paraphrase the great poet Langston Hughes: "Let America be America again/Let it be the dream it used to be." 

The Peace Corps, John F. Kennedy's signature foreign policy program, also came from those halcyon days. That was years before the bitter brew of the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement at home clashed spectacularly in a generational and class split. David Maraniss, the bestselling author and a native of Madison, Wisconsin's capital city, traced the same October days: First, on campus during a confrontation between students and police at the University of Wisconsin and, second, during a doomed battle in Vietnam. This took place in late 1967, just as the sundering started.

Progressive Madison, with its proud Memorial Union, was on the front lines then and again now, in a shattering conflict that will shape our nation anew. For me, reader, it's personal because that's my hometown. I was a young girl, six or seven, when I breathed in the songs, dreams, and tear gas riding on the winds of the '60s.

A quick review of events in Wisconsin here and now. Suppose we say the Wisconsin 14 accomplished this, at least, in losing: Republican Gov. Scott Walker was forced to play his hand and show that collective bargaining for public employee unions was indeed his true target. That naked power play—abolishing that with 14 lawmakers out of state—has antagonized voters against him, so much that Madison saw the largest protest in its history outside the Capitol last weekend—more than 100,000 people strong. Even more than the old days. [Find out 10 things you didn't know about Scott Walker.]

Walker has also aroused curiosity into why he never completed his degree from Marquette University, a question he's skirted for years. Was he expelled? This much is known: He ran for a student body office and may have broken some election rules—fancy that. He and some friends also collected and destroyed some editions of student newspapers reporting the unpleasant facts, Wisconsin sources said. That really warms an ink-stained heart—going after freedom of speech.

This charming fellow has launched his own offensive against women in Wisconsin, right in step with the House Republicans here in Washington. Family planning programs in local and county state-funded health agencies, along with Planned Parenthood's services, are on the block. In Walker's world, insurance companies would no longer be required to cover prescription birth control. Finally, a proposed sweeping $500 million cut in Medicaid cuts most directly into poor women and children's well-being and safety net. Women and children are first to go on his casualty list.

Walker has an odd way of suggesting that "taxpayers" are one thing and that teachers and other middle-class members of public employee unions are another. That doesn't sit well with the Midwestern sense of fairness. He plotted to keep police and firefighter unions away from the sound and fury by exempting them from cuts and changes. But these predominantly male unions are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow labor union members, many of whom are in traditionally female occupations such as teaching and nursing. That includes law enforcement officers stationed at the Capitol, who let it be known to protesters that they sided with them.  

Wisconsin had a hard winter and inflicted this punishment on itself. It lost a Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, and a major Democratic player in the House, David Obey, to retirement. Russell Feingold, a stand-out Senate Democrat, lost his seat. The state motto is "Forward." Yes, a weary nation looks to you now, Wisconsin. Show us how to go forward together.  

  • See photos of the Madison, Wisconsin protests.
  • Read the U.S. News debate: Should public sector workers keep collective bargaining?
  • Vote: Is Walker right about public sector unions?