Madison, WIS.—"On Wisconsin" is the fight song everybody at this fine university on the lake knows. In summer, the sunsets over Lake Mendota are to die for, as are the ice cream flavors made by the University of Wisconsin's dairy, best enjoyed with the exuberant vibe on the Memorial Union Terrace by the water. Life is sweetest here this time of year, and the Fourth of July is the sweetest day of summer.
Yet even an eternal optimist like Pangloss or me can taste the bittersweetness on the vine here, where the Republican Party was founded before the Civil War. Next came the Progressive Party, early in the 20th century. A century later, public-spirited Wisconsin is a deeply unhappy and divided state of mind.
Sketching in the shadows between the village parade, picnic, and fireworks, I might add that "Oh Wisconsin" is a downbeat counterpoint to the fight song these days.
The struggle for the state's political soul started during a long frozen winter outside the state Capitol and goes on to this July day. State Democrats and state employees are reeling at how much political and bargaining power they lost, so fast, to the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, who won an open seat.
The State Legislature is predominantly Republican. While there's a serious move afoot to recall some lawmakers in special elections this month, the concern is palpable that the political world in this Midwestern oasis changed suddenly to become flat. Some prominent Madisonians fear they can't defend ground they've stood on for years—for example, protecting besieged Planned Parenthood services and small family planning clinics from cuts and closures. Anguish is not too strong a word to describe the blue side of this beautiful state—blue, too. [Read the U.S. News Debate: Are recall elections a good idea?]
Few in the literati and liberalati in this university community and capital city saw this state of affairs coming—Walker is not just a major bummer, but probably the most aggressive governor in the land. To see the champion of campaign finance reform, Sen. Russ Feingold, lose his 2010 re-election race was one thing on the federal level. But few Democrats dreamed that their troubles on the state level were just beginning. They haven't wept by the waters of the lake yet, but that is always an option.
The conflict in Wisconsin mirrors the strife the nation is about to see played out in Washington during debt limit talks. Wisconsin is often a bit ahead of the times—and on this picture-perfect July Fourth, so it is again.