Those Troubled Republicans

I wrote an Endgame column for Milwaukee Magazine’s April issue . Out of necessity, the piece was trimmed by a third to fit the allocated space. Editor Bruce Murphy did a masterful job of chopping off the words.  But here’s the full piece, which I think provides more explanation of why the Republican Party is in a world of hurt.

By Marc Eisen

Wisconsin Republicans are like the querulous uncle nobody wants to sit next to at a big family gathering. He’s the old bitter guy. The cranky one who expounds loud and sketchy opinions. The scold who picks a fight with his wife and his daughter’s girlfriend. The hothead who shouts at them: Go! Leave the table!

That’s your Republican uncle in 2009.

How he got that way represent a political cautionary tale. Because for almost 20 years, beginning with the rise of Tommy Thompson to preeminence, Republicans were the dominant voice in Wisconsin politics. They set the agenda. They drove the discussion. They attracted the best young political minds. That is, until the party began sliding into self-caricature and jihadism after Thompson left for Washington in 2001.

Last November Wisconsin Republicans hit rock bottom with the Democratic capture of the Assembly. This completed the rare state house trifecta of single-party control of the governor’s office, the state Senate and the Assembly. (And while we’re counting: Democrats occupy both U.S. senate seats and five of eight congressional offices.)

The party’s transformation from powerhouse to also-run is closely connected to its increasing preoccupation with ideological purity. The broad-based party of the early President Reagan—his celebrated “big tent” Republicanism–was essentially conservative but still had enough hooks for an awful lot of people to hang their hats, including disaffected Democrats.

Avowed Republican moderates like Scott Klug and Steve Gunderson held congressional seats in Wisconsin districts with pronounced Democratic sentiments. The unconventional Lee Dreyfus and his lieutenants briefly revived the party’s historic connection to La Follette progressivism. Thompson proved an unabashed big government activist who remade a failed welfare system and moved boldly to reform public education in Milwaukee.

But the Republican glory days have passed as the party has gravitated to social conservatism, revanchism (Sam Tanenhaus’ fine word to describe the hard right’s endless desire to roll back all social welfare programs) and an obsessive belief in tax cuts as the solution to, well, just about any problem in America.

None of this, of course, had much to do with how Tommy Thompson ran Wisconsin and became an immensely popular four-term Republican governor.

Despite coming out of the revanchist wing of the GOP in the Assembly (as minority leader, Thompson was known as “Dr. No” for opposing  pretty much anything the Democrats wanted to do), as governor he combined what Irving Kristol once described as “the reforming spirit with the conservative idea.”

“It was a total transformation,” marvels Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political scientist who happened to be a Democratic lawmaker at the time. “I didn’t recognize Tommy as governor as the guy he was in the Assembly.”

As with Reagan, smart young conservatives flocked to Thompson’s side. Things were sooo different then.

In the age of Obama when even the sons and daughters of rock-ribbed Republicans joined his cause, it’s hard to believe that in 1984 President Reagan, in his re-election bid against Walter Mondale, carried two student wards on the perennially liberal UW-Madison campus.

But as Charles Franklin, the co-founder of Pollster.com and a UW-Madison political scientist explained, young people are inevitably “moved more by the current political winds” than older voters because they have no experience of earlier political events.

In 1984, it was the Democrats who they saw as tired, uninspired and mired in the past, while Republicans seemed like the party of change, optimism and achievement. That young people have largely abandoned the Republicans has to be one of the most telling signs of the party’s decline.

The 2006 election demonstrated just how dramatically the political gyre had spun in Wisconsin. The GOP brain trust, taking a page from the well-thumbed playbook of Newt Gingrich and then Karl Rove, chose to flog issues that would maximize the turnout of their conservative base. Scheduling a constitutional referendum to ban gay marriage on the November 2006 ballot seemed like a stroke of genius.

What better way to bring cultural conservatives to the polls for the Republican ticket? Not to mention to have a gubernatorial candidate, Mark Green, who embraced Wisconsin Right to Life’s fervent opposition to embryonic stem cell research at the UW-Madison campus.

But then something unexpected (by Republicans at least) happened. The referendum cruised to victory by a 59-41 margin, breaking the hearts of gays across Wisconsin. But Gov. Jim Doyle, an earnest but decidedly uncharismatic candidate, easily won re-election, while the Democrats picked up eight seats in the Assembly.

This was a sea change. Led by maestro Scott Jensen, Assembly Republicans had gained seats in the seven preceding elections, climbing from 41 to 60 members in the 99-member chamber. Tellingly, five of those newly Democratic seats were in college towns like Oshkosh and Platteville, where young people turned out to oppose the referendum and vote Democratic. Exit polling caught the sharp generational split–20-something voters opposed the gay-marriage ban 60%-40%.

Doyle, meanwhile, was untouched by the referendum’s passage and capitalized on the public’s overwhelming support of embryonic stem cell research. Surveys showed that seven of ten Wisconsin residents favored the research made famous by the UW’s James Thomson because of its potential for life-saving medical breakthroughs. Republicans, it seemed clear, had played the social-conservative card one too many times.

The problem: Wisconsin Republicans are increasingly defined by what they don’t like—gay people, illegal Hispanic immigrants, college professors, public employees, stem cell researchers, teachers, liberal-minded technology entrepreneurs, even trains—than what they stand for.

The constant carping and whining gets so old so quickly. No wonder no one wants to sit next to them at the family gathering. It’s hardly a recipe to attract young people to their side. Nor does groaning about a cigarette tax hike hold the least interest for a high-tech business owner worried about finding venture capital and the right code writers.

“I think the Republicans have locked themselves into a narrow box of what they think conservative means, and they haven’t done an especially good job of even defining that,” UW-Madison political scientist John Coleman told me.

“The more insular they are and the more they think they have all the answers, the worse off they’ll be,” he said.

Coleman thinks the Republican can turn things around if they wrap their core principles-–individual responsibility, limited but smart government, economic opportunity — into creative proposals for education and health care.

But like it or not, he said, Republicans also need to recognize that when the economy tanks and the public is gripped by insecurity they expect their elected officials to “do something.”

One certainly can imagine Tommy Thompson rising to the challenge, cheerleading the state and pulling in the best minds of business and the university to stake out a plan.

Thompson, in fact, would be a perfect example of what Tanenhaus described in a recent New Republic essay as a Burkean conservative -–a conservative so vested in maintaining societal stability a that he or she believe “governments were obligated to use their powers to ameliorate intolerable conditions.”

But the Thompson era is long gone, and so is his pragmatic approach to governing. As one of his former aides told me: Republican candidates confound the voters with an utterly paradoxical pitch: Elect me and I’ll oppose the government that works on your behalf.

It’s the revanchists who rule the Republican Party and who chase everyone else from the dinner table.

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