One hundred and fifty-eight years ago in Ripon, Wisconsin, a lawyer named Alvan Bovay and representatives of several political groups took a stand in solidarity with the Free Soil Party — the party opposed to the extension of slavery into the territories. They opposed a bill proposed by Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The bill would have repealed the anti-slavery provisions of the Missouri Compromise, allowing settlers in the territories to decide for themselves whether to make slavery legal and denying non-citizen immigrants the right to vote. Bovay and the others suggested the formation of a new political party. It was July of 1854, and the Wisconsin Republican Party was born. The very next year, Wisconsin elected a Republican governor.
In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to allow collective bargaining for government employees — a development which, as time would reveal, was an extraordinarily bad idea. Unlike private sector unions which bargain collectively to ensure an equitable distribution of profits, government unions have no profits to work with. They deal only with a seemingly unlimited supply of taxpayer dollars. In a short amount of time, overly generous pay and benefits, self-serving union schemes such as the WEA Trust, and endless public sector amenities and privileges at the expense of private sector taxpayers all combined to create a perfect political storm, a tinderbox for political change. A young politician named Scott Walker would provide the spark.
It took a great recession to expose the billions in debt and deficit resulting from the self-gorging and non-stop growth of pay, benefits, and pensions for public sector employees. In February of 2011, newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker sparked a national uproar over the excesses and political bullying of organized labor, calling for public employees — especially teachers — to pay a tiny bit more for their pension and health care costs, and proposing reasonable limits to previously abused public employee collective bargaining rights. He proposed taking the state out of the business of collecting union dues and asked public employees to accept a pay, pension, and benefits package that 95% of private sector employees would die for. Of course, the unions fought back. Political muscle was flexed and union chests were pounded. Sixty thousand union employees protested in Madison and thousands of teachers called in sick, taking many of their students with them. Democrat state senators shirked their responsibilities and fled the state to avoid a vote on Walker’s proposals as President Barack Obama accused Walker of launching an “assault on unions.”
The miracle in Wisconsin has had a profound effect on both the perception of public employee unions and the Republican Party. Over the years, the GOP has been hard to define. It is perhaps more easily defined by its struggles than its unity. In time, it became difficult for the original anti-slavery party to attract large numbers of black voters. It has also tended to be less popular with Hispanics than the Democratic Party is. Until recently, the GOP was suffering from an identity crisis, with internal competition of several very different ideological blocs, none of which were dominant enough to determine the GOP’s presidential nominee on their own. Some fiscal conservatives within the party are ardent social moderates or even socially liberal. Then there are Republicans who vote purely the social issues. Social conservatives, libertarians, establishment (“country club”) Republicans, blue-collar Republicans, social moderates, and the Tea Party all combine to form the shifting mosaic which comprises the GOP. This is why some nominees — like John McCain — split and diluted the Republican vote, making it harder for the GOP to win the White House. One of life’s greatest political ironies is that the GOP — not the Democratic Party — is truly diverse and boasts the bigger tent.
The different factions within the GOP all share one common characteristic — they are all fiscal conservatives. They abhor debt and deficits, believe in small government, and strive for lower taxes. They want big government off the backs of employers and employees alike, and believe in equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. They realize life isn’t fair, and government can’t make it so. The real difficulty facing the Republican Party over the last forty years has been an inability to coalesce and cobble together a coalition of these diverse factions.
Scott Walker’s miraculous win, made possible by the over-reaching and miscalculations of public employee unions, has caught national attention and caused a rebirth of sorts within the Republican Party. Walker’s fight and ultimate victory over government union greed and excess has become a clarion call for common sense, a catalyst bringing together the factions within the Republican Party around the nucleus which holds them together: fiscal conservatism. The common cause of saving the republic has united the clans and lit a fire within the GOP. And all because of what happened in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, the birthplace of the Republican Party.
The Cheesehead Revolution in Wisconsin is more than a catalyst for change, however. It is a call to arms for conservatives everywhere, giving courage and hope to lawmakers and politicians in states like Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and California, states drowning in unfunded mandates, mammoth government employee pension obligations, massive debt, and mounting deficits. This is the perfect storm President Barack Obama was dreading. Big Labor’s attacks on Scott Walker’s reforms tested voter attitudes towards his aggressive, common-sense form of governing, and will surely embolden other conservative politicians — perhaps even Mitt Romney — to make the tough decisions necessary to restore fiscal common sense to a country driven off the cliff by self-serving public employee unions and believers in a big-government panacea. It will be the undertone for every public appearance of Mitt Romney, with the debt clock ticking ominously in the background. It might even provide the political backbone necessary to give Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, dubbed the “Roadmap for America’s Future,” a fighting chance.
Like a punch-drunk fighter who has recovered and gathered his wits during the later rounds, the Republican Party has gotten its second wind — precisely at the right moment. Democrats and public employee unions intended to use Walker as a warning to budget-cutting, union-busting conservatives across the country. Instead, now tens of thousands of once-faithful union members are suddenly not so faithful, refusing to contribute and quitting their unions in droves. Labor’s miscalculations have already proven devastating and may well be the undoing of public employee unions as well as seed right-to-work legislation around the country.
One of the worst blunders in political history has proven true the following maxim: if you shoot at the king, you had better not miss.
Update: Romney Now Leads…in Wisconsin