By DeWayne Wickham
The standoff between Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Democratic senators that caused a massing of protesters in the state capital isn't just about the bargaining rights of public employees. Sure, that's the headline much of the news media is putting on this controversy. But it's far from the whole story of what is behind the conflict between the newly elected governor and Democrats who lost control of the state Senate in the last election.
Whether they know it or not, the state's 14 Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to ram through a bill that would emasculate all of the state's public employee unions (except the three that endorsed Walker) are part of a bigger fight.
They're at the front of the political war Republicans launched since winning control of a majority of the nation's statehouses in November, including victories in the one-time union strongholds of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. This turnabout has emboldened GOP governors to push legislation that could cripple Democrats in state and national elections.
Evidence of this strategy can be seen in Walker 's insistence on trying to strip away the collective bargaining rights of many public employees - at least on health care, pension benefits and working conditions - even after they've agreed to the financial concessions the governor said are needed to balance the state's budget.
Walker's bill is a shoot-the-wounded assault on the Democratic Party's base, which when combined with a voter ID law that's also being pushed through Wisconsin's Republican-controlled legislature could put The Badger State firmly in GOP hands for decades.
The proposed ID law would restrict the right to vote to people with military IDs, drivers' licenses and a state-issued ID card. Passports and photo ID cards issued to college students (even those from state universities) would not be acceptable.
College students and public unions are pillars of the Democratic base. Wisconsin's ID law would suppress voter participation among students. A 2005 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute study found that 82% of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds did not have a driver's license in the ZIP codes for neighborhoods near Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The study also showed that statewide, the majority of college-age blacks and Hispanics lacked drivers' licenses.
Walker's budget repair bill also will severely weaken - if not fatally wound - the state's public employee unions. And in that effort he is not alone. Republicans governors in Indiana and Ohio also are moving to weaken the bargaining rights of public unions. The tactic will make it harder for unions to influence state and national elections. All of this is happening while GOP-controlled legislatures in Missouri, Ohio and Texas are pushing their own voter ID laws.
Late last month Texas' Senate passed a voter ID law that requires people in that state to show a driver's license, military ID, a passport, a state or citizenship ID card or a concealed handgun license before being allowed to vote. Over the past decade Texas' population grew to more than 25 million people. Hispanics were 65%, blacks 22% and whites just 4.2% of that population surge. Whites now make up less than half of all Texans and tend to be older. So not surprisingly, the Republican-controlled Senate made an exception to the ID law for people older than 70. Those voters only need to show a voter registration card to vote.
This is the nature of the war the GOP is waging. It's a quest for political hegemony - and a fight Democrats cannot afford to lose.