Scott Walker began his governorship by whispering to a billionaire campaign donor about his intention to “divide and conquer” Wisconsin for political purposes. His fierce partisanship and ideological rigidity tore at the fabric of Wisconsin. The governor’s Democratic challenger in this year’s election, Tony Evers, frequently reminded voters of that on the campaign trail.
“Governor Walker,” said the Democrat, “you may have spent the last eight years trying to divide us, but you will never conquer us.” Evers was right, and on Walker was ousted on November 6, ushering in a new era that Evers believes “can unite this state.”
The governor-elect has extended a hand of friendship to Republicans and signaled that he wants to work with the party that, through extreme gerrymandering, has retained control of the legislature. As the state superintendent of public instruction, Evers has a history of crossing lines of partisanship and ideology on education issues, so honest Republicans know they can work with him.
Unfortunately, Republican leaders aren’t showing the newly elected governor any respect. As soon as the votes were counted, State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos claimed that “While yesterday was a win for Governor-elect Evers, it cannot be seen as any kind of mandate for change.” But Evers won the governorship this year with almost 65,000 more votes than Walker got in the 2014 election—after which Vos and his fellow Republicans certainly acted as if Walker had secured a mandate. This time, Vos is throwing a temper tantrum because his side lost.
Unfortunately, he appears determined to turn that tantrum into a messy power grab that seeks to thwart the will of the people. Hours after Evers was elected, Vos announced that “maybe we made some mistakes giving too much power to Governor Walker and I’d be open to looking at that to see if there are areas we should change that…”
Vos has speculated that the legislature might make moves to limit the new governor’s ability to overturn executive orders on voting rights and Medicaid issues. State Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald is talking about changing the makeup of government-appointed boards to reduce the number of appointments by the new Democratic governor and increase the number of appointments by the old Republican legislative leaders. In particular, Fitzgerald has discussed cutting back gubernatorial appointments to the board of the powerful Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. That would be a dramatic power grab by the legislature, since Evers was elected as a sharp critic of the scandal-plagued agency.
The bottom line that extends from these comments by the Republican legislative leaders is stark. As Republican state Senator Luther Olsen admits: “The problem is it just looks like you’re trying to tie the hands of the new governor. The optics problem looks bad.”
It looks bad because it is bad.
Borrowing a tattered page from North Carolina Republicans—who embarrassed themselves two years ago, when they moved to disempower newly elected Democratic Governor Roy Cooper—Vos and Fitzgerald are proposing to rewrite the rules in what Evers has characterized as a “desperate attempt to cling to power.”
It is that. But it is also something else. The Wisconsin Republicans propose to reject a basic premise of the American experiment.
The standard for how power is transferred in the United States was shaped in the first days of the republic, following the bitter presidential campaign of 1800. The competition between the incumbent administration of John Adams and his Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans was so intense that Jefferson would write years later of how the debates preceding the vote, “whether relating to men, measures, or opinions, were conducted by the parties with animosity, a bitterness, and an indecency, which had never been exceeded.”
When Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans prevailed, no one had experience with a partisan power shift so sweeping that Jefferson described it as “a revolution in the principles of our government.” Yet, after an Electoral College deadlock and a chaotic three dozen congressional votes, Adams stood down and Jefferson took office.
In his inaugural address, Jefferson acknowledged the differences that made the 1800 campaign so jarring to the new nation. “But,” he concluded, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Like Adams, Jefferson was a flawed man; both erred frequently in their own choices and their political calculations. Yet, their transfer of power began a process that would be perfected over time. When the will of the voters is that one party must surrender a position of great authority, that party cedes the power that it has held to the opposition.
To reject this approach is to reject not just accepted practice but the ideal that was articulated by Abraham Lincoln in the most agonizing inaugural address in American history. Even as the republic was being torn apart by southern secessionists, the new president (who had been elected with just 39 percent of the popular vote) saw beyond the awful divisions of the moment and suggested that “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Lincoln was a Republican president who speculated that he might not be reelected in the 1864 election that took place during the Civil War. Were he to lose, he wrote, “Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration.” That was a daunting notion. Working with Tony Evers is not. Vos and Fitzgerald ought to reconsider their scheme to tie the hands of the man Wisconsinites have elected to serve as their governor. It is unbefitting that elected leaders should engage in so petty and partisan a display of self-interest at a time when Wisconsin should be ending the politics of divide-and-conquer.