Thursday, January 26, 2012

Political landscape shifted on Tommy Thompson

Don’t let the gray hair fool you. Tommy Thompson is as spunky as ever. But back when he was top dog in Wisconsin, politics was a mere boxing match. Now it’s Mortal Kombat. Can he master the new game?

The state’s longest-serving governor stopped by the Milwaukee Press Club the other day to explain why he would be an “excellent” choice to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl. Like many a politician, the Republican Thompson, who’s 70, made his case with truths, half-truths and exaggerations.

An impressive truth is that in all but 18 months of his 14 years as governor, Democrats controlled the Legislature. Yet, "nobody can't say I didn't accomplish a great deal.” Amen to that. Trouble is, the Republican Party now views as a character flaw playing nice with the other side to get things done.

The former Bush cabinet member did his obligatory attacks on President Obama. Thompson said that, under Obama, the national debt has soared from $10 trillion to $16 trillion – which is a teeny bit less deceitful way to put it than do the Republicans on the presidential campaign trail, who say outright Obama caused the rise. Actually, the lion’s share ($5 trillion) of the increase stems from the continuing impact of President Bush’s economic policies, especially his tax cuts and two wars. In seeking to end the tax cuts for the wealthy, Obama has tried to slow the hemorrhaging, but the Republicans have blocked him at every turn.

Like Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, Thompson is milking so-called welfare reform. Gingrich was speaker of the House when Congress and President Bill Clinton did what was never done before or since – end an entitlement program: Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The replacement was Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is not an entitlement. The Wisconsin version of TANF is Wisconsin Works.

Thompson boasted that the switch, which indeed he did spearhead, led to a 90% reduction in the state welfare caseload – whch he views as an astounding success. Trouble is, cutting off life support for needy, powerless kids and and their moms takes neither brains nor guts. It just takes a cold heart. The correct measure of success is how are poor families faring. On the streets desperation seems to have only intensified..

Don’t get me wrong. Welfare as we knew it needed reform, mainly because it was losing almost all political support. And the alternative had to be work-oriented. But imbedded in W-2 are wrong-headed policies that reflect a disdain for poor people and keep the program from being the help it ought to be.

When asked about the successful effort to date of current Gov. Scott Walker to eliminate the right to collective bargaining for public employees, Thompson made clear he would not criticize his successor.  “He’s the governor, and I support him. I was not there when he was making his decision based upon the facts and evidence that he had. I’m not going to come now and Monday morning quarterback and say I would have done it different. I probably would have, but I don’t know.”

He gave a similar reply when asked whether he would have sent back to Washington the $810 million Walker returned for high-speed rail from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison. A rail buff and former chairman of the Amtrak board, Thompson said he supported Walker, but he would have made the Milwaukee-to-Madison leg truly high speed. As it was, he said, the train would have had too many stops to go fast.

I swear I could almost hear Thompson thinking something like this: That kid made some boneheaded decisions, but I have no choice but to support the top Republican in the state.

Once it was not uncommon for Republicans to openly back collective bargaining or high-speed rail. But times have changed. Thompson made note of the new landscape: When he first ran for governor, he was criticized as being too conservative. Now, he said, the criticism is that he’s not conservative enough.

Thompson admitted that the negative tone of today’s politics turns him cold: "We have just way too much of tearing things down in the country,” he said. ”I don't believe in this politics of destruction."

The other Republican candidates are state Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and former southeastern Wisconsin Congressperson Mark Neumann. The sole Democrat running for Kohl’s seat is Madison-area congressperson Tammy Baldwin

Monday, January 23, 2012

Newt gives new life to Southern strategy

Dear Newt:

Your victory in South Carolina has made me proud. Though we have never met, I have come to think of you as my second son. You were floundering in the race for president until, wisely, you borrowed from my playbook. Some of them “elite” (heh, heh) commentators said my game plan had lost its clout, but you showed ’em. The Southern Strategy – that’s how the eggheads christened my playbook – still has some life in it.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore
The way you put that black journalist Juan Wiliams in his place – well, that was just masterful. He was calling you out on your use of the Southern Strategy by your implications that black people lack a work ethic. Not only did you stand your ground, but you also used the question as a platform to attack Barack Obama. The audience went wild. The idea of the Southern strategy is, of course, that you win votes by appealing to white prejudice against black people. Even the way you said “Juan” was masterful; it sounded almost like “Boy.” The audience got the message, if only subconsciously.Your labeling President Obama “the food-stamp president” was a coup. Amazingly, you may have even outdone me in sophistry. The cracks in the free enterprise system widen during bad times. Hence, regardless of who’s president, more people will fall through the cracks into the social safety net, of which food stamps are a part. But saying that Obama has broken records in putting people on food stamps feeds nicely into stereotypes many whites have of blacks.

You doubtless know the story of my first run for Alabama governor. It was 1958, and my Ku Klux Klan-backed opponent, John Patterson, portrayed me as a friend of the Negro, and I lost. With the bitter aftertaste of defeat in my mouth, I swore I would never, ever be outniggered again. And the rest is history. I became the symbol for defiance against integration.

The beauty was the strategy worked up North, too, when I ran for president. Of course, I couldn’t use the N-word, like politicians used to do in Alabama. I just talked about law and order and "sissy-britches welfare people." The audience got the code. I won a third of the vote in the Democratic primary in Wisconsin in 1964.
My playbook wasn’t copyrighted, and the Republicans stole it, making in short order the solidly Democratic South solidly Republican and making inroads into white, blue-collar neighborhoods up North.

Some in the media, doubtless old hippies, have said that my playbook will soon run its course because it will start turning off more voters than it turns on – thanks in large part to the dastardly Voting Rights Act and out-of-control immigration. Even Karl Rove, George Bush’s brain, subscribed to that theory. Well, your showing in South Carolina demonstrates the strategy still has juice. Of course, the Confederate flag still flies at the Statehouse. So Republican South Carolinians may be more susceptible to that strategy than their compatriots elsewhere.

I wish you well and will continue to watch with interest your race for the Republican nomination for president. We get Fox News down here. I hope to shake your hand soon. I know a tavern we can go to. The beer is not too horrible.

Yours sincerely,

George Corley Wallace

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The torch has passed to a new generation

The nation’s Occupy movement has picked up the torch that Martin Luther King Jr. once carried to light the path to justice. That was the theme at the King birthday rally this week at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Milwaukee.

"The gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow,” said George Martin, a grizzled Milwaukee peace activist who noted that King was focusing on that gap near the end of his life. “The United States has become the wealthiest Third World country on Earth."

Martin pointed out that the Occupy movement was trying to narrow the wide gap between the top one per cent of personal income in America and the bottom 99%.

Peggy Rozga saw parallels between the youthful Occupy movement in Milwaukee and the city’s NAACP Youth Council, which led a marathon series of open housing marches and other demonstrations in the 1960s. "Milwaukee has a history of young people standing up for justice," said Rozga, a poet and writer and widow of Father James Groppi, the civil rights leader who was adviser to the Youth Council.

Echoing that sentiment, Danielle Meyer of Occupy Milwaukee said of the struggles waged by King and Groppi, “Their movement is our movement.”

Besides King, the rally honored Groppi and Father Matthew Gottschalk, former pastor at St. Francis. The rally’s sponsor was the Milwaukee Justice Coalition.

Meyer accused Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker of giving tax breaks to millionaires while cutting BaderCare, Wisconsin’s health care program for poor people.. Many on Wall Street own several properties while Milwaukeeans lose their homes, she said. The one per cent caused the current economic crisis, she added, but the 99% pay the price.

Angela Walker, legislative director of Local 998 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, noted that, when he was a bus driver, Groppi was president of the union. She said the battleground was no longer Selma or Montgomery. Rather, it was in places like the state capitol, where public schools are defunded and union rights are stripped away.

Khalil Coleman, of the Occupy the Hood movement, called on Milwaukeeans to stand up for justice with action, not just words.

Chance Zombor, of Decolonize the Barrio, warned that the gains of the civil rights movement “are being pulled out from under us.” There is more war and more economic injustice, he said, and even President Obama is a culprit with his stepped up deportations and measures curtailing civil liberties.

Many at the rally marched four blocks from the church at 1927 N. 4th St. to the Martin Luther King statue at Walnut St. and Martin Luther King Dr., where members of the crowd spoke at an open microphone and elaborated on the themes voiced at the church.

Note: The graininess of the photos inside the church is due to technical difficulties. After much debate with myself, I decided that they were worth posting anyway.