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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
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Wisconsin election proves the power of bad ideas
The triumph of stupidity
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At a recent discussion on the Nov. 2 election hosted by the local Society for Professional Journalists, UW-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin was expounding on why Republicans emerged triumphant, in Wisconsin and throughout the land.

In my questions to Franklin, I noted that the public seemed to vote against its own interests and stated desires, for instance by electing candidates who'll drive up the deficit with fiscally reckless giveaways to the rich.

Franklin, perhaps a bit too candidly, conceded the point. "I'm not endorsing the American voter," he answered. "They're pretty damn stupid."

"Thank you, professor," I responded. "That's the answer I was looking for."

Frankly, it's an answer embraced by many people I know. One of my Isthmus colleagues sent me a study showing that Dane County, which bucked the trends on Election Day, is by far the most educated county in the state. "When conservatives cut support for education," she mused, "they do so to keep people dumb and their own interests in power."

Wow. That's cynical. And, I think, ridiculous. Still, if there was ever an election that deserves to employ the word "stupid" in its analysis, this one is it.

How could the electorate opt for an obvious phony like Ron Johnson over Russ Feingold?

Throughout the campaign, Johnson ridiculed Feingold's claimed status as a maverick within his party. Do the folks who voted for this multimillionaire manufacturer, whose campaign was bankrolled by the corporate right, really think he'll defy his party more often than Feingold defied his (887 times, to be exact, including 97 times as the lone holdout)? If that happens, I swear, I'll shave my head and eat my hair.

Now consider Wisconsin Gov.-elect Scott Walker's promise to magically create 250,000 new jobs and reinvigorate the state's economy even as he rejects $810 million from the federal government to extend high-speed rail to Madison, a necessary first step toward bringing it to the Twin Cities.

Walker, a former high-speed rail supporter, got elected in part by lying to the people of Wisconsin about this pot of cash. He said and still insists he wants to use it for other transit projects, like fixing the state roads and bridges he says are "literally crumbling."

But Walker's claim that Wisconsin could use this money however it wants, like a Best Buy gift card, has always been, as Jim Doyle put it, "pure fiction."

This money, and the thousands of jobs it would have created, will now go to some other state. (Chides a friend from Vermont, "By all means, Vermont will be happy to take some of your money for high-speed rail if you don't want it. We have a $70 million project out here that didn't make the cut.")

Moreover, Wisconsin will be out $14.25 million in lost costs and contract cancellation fees, as well as $83.4 million for rail upgrades it now must fund alone. Plus it will lose the economic benefits that would have come from the new rail line, similar to a hugely successful one that now connects Milwaukee to Chicago.

All this to save maintenance costs Walker says will annually total $7.5 million - 10 times the amount estimated by state officials and still less than one-third of one percent of the state's $3 billion annual transit budget. The guy is not just a liar, he's also a fool.

And just think: If Scott Walker really is dumb enough to kill the train, what isn't he too dumb to do?

Shut down stem-cell research that brings millions into the state and could lead to cures for horrible diseases? Why not? Destroying unwanted embryos, poor things, is so much better than using them to save lives.

Undermine rules meant to protect consumers and the environment? Walker is on it already, promising to politicize the enforcement functions of the state Department of Natural Resources and Commerce Department and make the new UW heating plant burn environmentally dicey natural gas from out of state rather than pioneer the use of biofuels made in Wisconsin.

He's also pledged to rescind modest tax hikes on the state's richest residents and restore a tax loophole for multi-state corporations that even former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson wanted to end. Why settle for a $2.7 billion budget deficit when you can create a $4.5 billion one?

Certainly, doing so would add urgency to Walker's call to force the wages and benefits of public employees "into line" with everyone else, as he told The New York Times. "Public employees can't be haves while private-sector employees are have-nots."

Walker's goal, apparently, is to turn as many Wisconsinites as possible into have-nots, vying against each other in a perpetual downward spiral. Or is there something he could do that would be even stupider?


Bill Lueders is news editor of Isthmus. His new book is Watchdog: 25 Years of Muckraking and Rabblerousing.

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