The Wisconsin politerati is all atwitter today at a WSJ report indicating that senate Democrats might soon end their Illinois exile. In the article, Democratic senate leader Mark Miller says recent polls show Walker’s budget-repair bill to be politically “disastrous” for the governor, which he says will give Democrats more leverage to negotiate portions of the larger budget bill in the weeks to come.
If this is what Miller thinks, it seems like a suspect strategy — a variation on the rarely seen Let’s capitulate to our opponent because the public currently doesn’t like what he’s doing plan. How many congressional Republicans rooted for Obamacare because they thought it would show the public once and for all how unpopular government health care could be? What if Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in an interview before the Super Bowl, “Maybe it won’t be so bad if the Steelers win — imagine how sick of Ben Roethlisberger the public will be”? It sounds like Mark Miller, in today’s parlance, has convinced himself that he’s “winning.”
Perhaps Miller’s quote was a trial balloon, meant to gauge the opposition he’ll get from his base, which has spent three weeks screaming itself hoarse on the steps of the state capitol. It would be reasonable to expect some displeasure: If Democrats do return and vote on the bill without any changes — as they had indicated they would never do — cops, firefighters, and teachers are likely to ask, “Why did I just spend three weeks in the capitol pressed up against a hippie?” Indeed, within hours of the story being published, Miller was rebuffed by some members of his own caucus.
On the other hand, it is possible that Scott Walker really has waited them out. (On his last physical, does it say “Blood Type: Tiger”?) In the past three weeks, Democrats and public-sector unions (but I repeat myself) have thrown everything they have at Walker, and he hasn’t budged. (And I do mean everything: They even tried to embarrass him by exposing the fact that in high school he had a mullet and was nicknamed “the Desperado” — unaware that in Wisconsin, this is likely to increase his approval rating.)
It seems a little short-sighted for senate Democrats to believe Walker has damaged himself irreparably. Several polls show Walker’s approval rating to be in the low 40’s, but Walker almost certainly expected to take some kind of public-relations hit when he entered this standoff. And he certainly remembers what happened to Mitch Daniels.
When Daniels took over as governor of Indiana in 2005, he immediately eliminated collective bargaining for state employees. Within a year, his approval rating had sunk to 35 percent. But today it’s in the 75 percent range and he is a plausible presidential candidate.
Walker is keenly aware of this. People in his administration I have talked to indicate that the Daniels arc — make some unpopular moves upon taking office, then reap the benefits when the state’s economy turns for the better — is one Walker is willing to follow.
As soon as senate Democrats fled the state to avoid having to vote on Walker’s collective-bargaining bill, a favorite chant of protesters was “This is what democracy looks like!” If Miller is right about coming home, those demonstrators might finally be right. It looks like Democrats have taken on the Desperado, but it’s the senators in exile who have finally come to their senses.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.