Dustin Beilke: Republicans lose and win

As someone who is decidedly not a Republican, I find it hard to watch the Mary Panzer-Glenn Grothman showdown in West Bend without some measure of glee. Those good feelings pass, however, as soon as my head clears and I put the contest in context.

Republican Panzer is the majority leader in the Wisconsin state Senate, and Grothman is a Republican Assembly representative from her 20th Senate District who filed papers last week to challenge her in a primary this September. Grothman says Panzer is a liberal.

Panzer is certainly not a liberal, and Grothman almost certainly is delusional in calling her one, but their showdown exposes the sort of infighting for which Democrats are famous. Institutional Republicans are up in arms about the Panzer-Grothman race because it will divert campaign dollars and human resources from other GOP races, the same effects Democrats see when their disputes become public.

For example, in 2002 Democratic then-Sen. Kevin Shibilski found himself facing – and losing to – Barbara Lawton in the Democratic lieutenant governor primary after he incurred the wrath of the Legislature’s progressives by voting for a Republican budget compromise.

Last year, Democratic Congressman Dave Obey intervened in the Democratic state Senate primary between Julie Lassa and Alex Paul because Paul’s lowest-common-denominator TV campaign went so low it made everybody sick. Lassa later sued Paul’s direct-mail consultant for defamation, and won.

Progressives and environmentalists have rebelled against Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle for backing big-business tax policies and the so-called Job Creation Act. Doyle also had difficulty preventing legislative Democrats from providing the votes necessary to override his property tax freeze and concealed carry vetoes.

In other words, this Grothman-Panzer dispute is sorely familiar to Democrats, and if some of us seem kind of happy at the moment, it is because we like to think that for once the Republicans are feeling some of our pain.The happiness stops upon consideration of what the Republicans are battling over and how close the extremists are to winning. Grothman and his backers are upset with Panzer mostly for not fighting harder for the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, the wacko scheme that the national conservative movement has drawn up to strangle state and local government.

The right-wingers call TABOR a “tax freeze” because they understand that the general public favors that notion over the wingers’ true mission, which is to create an America without government services and public schools. But the truth is that TABOR would require deep, arbitrary spending cuts every year until state government essentially ceases to exist. TABOR is the embodiment of right-wing guru Grover Norquist’s vision of a nation in which government is shrunken “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

TABOR is a radical social experiment, dreamt up in corporate-funded think tanks in Washington, D.C., and delivered to the states with talking points and cooked numbers already included.

It would be tempting to dismiss this debate as an ideological or academic one, but the truth is that TABOR is supported by a majority of the Republicans in both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. This preposterous, impracticable notion is treated seriously by most news reporters and is now at the center of the state’s most closely watched legislative race.

That is where the Republicans’ fight in the 20th Senate District differs from Democratic infighting. In the minority right now, Democrats are feuding over whether they should co-opt the Republicans’ big-business agenda and pass along the Republicans’ budget bill without debate. Meanwhile, Republicans, in the driver’s seat, dicker over the finer points of some of the most radical legislative proposals we have ever seen. The Republicans win even when they lose.

FightingBob.com editor Ed Garvey said in his July 14 GarveyBlog entry that the Grothman-Panzer fight “should be fun to watch.” I agree. In fact, I’m having fun already. I just hope we do not have so much fun that we start thinking this means our side is winning.

Dustin Beilke is a Madison writer and a FightingBob.com contributing editor.