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Wisconsin at the tipping point between ‘normal’ and ‘crazy’


Wisconsin at the tipping point between ‘normal’ and ‘crazy’

Feb 09, 2023 | 7:15 am ET
By Ruth Conniff
Wisconsin at the tipping point between ‘normal’ and ‘crazy’
(Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

The first thing President Joe Biden did the morning after he delivered his State of the Union address was to board a plane for Wisconsin, taking his message directly to the blue-collar, swing state voters he hopes will propel his reelection in 2024.

It’s not a bad calculation. Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have all done well here, playing different variations on the same populist themes.

Biden’s message about increasing economic opportunity and rebuilding “the backbone of America, the middle class” by targeting rising inequality and the collapse of manufacturing, “to make sure the economy works for everyone so we can all feel pride in what we do,” certainly has an audience here.

Parts of Biden’s speech sounded almost identical to Gov. Tony Evers’ recent State of the State address, which also began by touting record low unemployment, new investments in business, and calling for bipartisan efforts to use the government’s power to expand opportunity and make life better for ordinary citizens.

Biden sounded a little like Trump, too, when he said, “For too many decades, we imported products and exported jobs” — a message that won over Wisconsin in 2016.

But while Trump’s promise to rebuild American infrastructure became a joke, as his administration dragged on and he failed to get around to all those rebuilding projects, Biden can take credit for passing the bipartisan infrastructure law, the biggest U.S. investment in infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System, as he put it in his speech. That measure is now putting hundreds of thousands of people to work rebuilding America’s roads, bridges, airports and railroads, getting poisonous lead contamination out of drinking water and putting high speed internet into rural areas that lack broadband. Like Evers, who directed the millions of dollars in federal money Biden made available for those projects in Wisconsin, Biden can now take credit for concrete accomplishments that are literally changing the landscape and improving people’s lives.

Republicans are left to bemoan “socialism,” wring their hands about the federal deficit (which ballooned on Trump’s watch) and try to change the subject to the culture war topics they prefer.

The most impressive moment in Biden’s State of the Union speech was when he took on the jeering, shouting crowd of Republican members of Congress on their intention to “sunset” Medicare and Social Security. It was Biden’s assertion that some Republicans have proposed ripping up the safety net that started the ruckus, with Marjorie Taylor Greene, the congresswoman from Q-Anon, shouting “liar!” and a chorus of boos enveloping the chamber. Biden deftly maneuvered Republicans into their own trap. “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now. Right?” he said. The lawmakers — even some Republicans — rose to their feet and everyone applauded the New Deal programs as Biden said,  “All right. We’ve got unanimity!”

Republicans know that their economic agenda — shredding the safety net and handing out tax breaks to the super rich — is not popular with voters. So when flushed out in public they applaud wildly for Medicare and Social Security and pretend to be scandalized at the very suggestion that they would ever cut them back. But of course they would.

As Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan explained, when the House passed a resolution condemning socialism, “More and more members on the other side of the aisle are calling for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and many have referred to these programs as ‘socialism’ throughout their existence.”

FDR fought the same fight against the business and banking interests who hated him and his redistributive policies, calling them “socialist,” and whose hatred he welcomed. It was cheering to see Biden welcoming it, too, in his State of the Union address.

The ridiculous anti-socialism resolution passed by the House was directly tied to Republicans’ long-time desire to eliminate the last traces of FDR’s social safety net, Pocan pointed out. “The other night in the Rules Committee they showed their cards. Republicans refused an amendment to declare that Social Security and Medicare is not socialism. This resolution is little about intelligent discourse and everything to do about laying the groundwork to cut Social Security and Medicare.”

Biden politely declined to name the most recent Republican plan to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block in the State of the Union. In Wisconsin, as Erik Gunn reports he named them: Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Wisconsin’s own Ron Johnson.

Johnson, in what was widely viewed as a bizarre unforced error, publicly declared just before his recent narrow reelection victory that instead of protecting Medicare and Social Security as “off limits” entitlements, they should be subjected to annual budget debates and open to cuts just like every other discretionary spending program.

Thanks in part to a GOP campaign of aggressive voter suppression in Milwaukee, Johnson squeaked back into office.

There, he immediately moved to more comfortable terrain — warning of the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines and spouting crackpot theories about Deep State conspiracies, the “weaponization” of the federal government and Hunter Biden’s laptop.

This, we learned from Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the Republican response to Biden’s State of the Union address, is the meat of the Republican program: Bang the drum about the dangers of “wokeness,” “critical race theory” and “socialism,” and hope that tabloid topics distract voters from the bread and butter issues Biden is talking about.

It will be fascinating to see if it works. Here in Wisconsin, we have record low unemployment and the largest state budget surplus in history. Yet Republicans continue to push austerity, complaining that they can’t afford to put money toward public schools and instead need to give a giant tax break to the very rich.

No wonder they’d rather spend time talking about wacky conspiracy theories. Economic populism — long a winning message in Wisconsin — is not their strong suit. Instead they are banking on ad hominem attacks on Biden and other Democrats and stoking tribal hatred of liberals and (especially Black) urbanites.

Huckabee Sanders went so far as to claim that the choice in American politics today is not between left and right but between “normal and crazy.” 

By “normal” people she meant the ones who think the COVID-19 vaccine is a secret government plot, the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile sex ring out of a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant.

By “crazy” she meant people who agree with Biden and Evers that the government can do something to help people, that good jobs that pay well should be accessible to everyone, that we can improve our education system, slow the effects of climate change and clean up our water, and that the rich should pay more in taxes. 

Good for Biden for leaning in. In a state that voted for both Obama and Trump, and then for Biden, we could use more of his kind of crazy.

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