COMMENTARY: Behold, the power of cheese
By Kevin Binversie
TIME magazine named “The Protester,” particularly the Arab protester fighting against decades of tyrannical regimes in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, as the winner last week of its annual designation of “Person of the Year.”
Though they don’t have to make such a distinction, if the magazine were to designate a “State of the Year,” I would vote for Wisconsin to win for 2011. If things continue on their current course, the state very likely could repeat the honor in 2012.
For starters, this goes well beyond sports. It isn’t just a Green Bay Packers victory in Super Bowl XLV or a nearly perfect season on the march toward a repeat. While nice, it has little to do with back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl for the Badgers of the University of Wisconsin or what can only be described as a season to remember for the Milwaukee Brewers.
However, when it comes to public policy and political news, it’s hard to argue Wisconsin did not have an imprint on the policy debates of 2011. Right off the bat, the state’s political muscle increased when Reince Priebus was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The unassuming Kenosha lawyer, who previously was chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, has shown he possessed the turnaround skills needed to make the RNC once again a formidable player in national politics. Priebus also helped solidify a growing feeling that Wisconsin is not just a state to watch in the 2012 presidential election, but a state that could help decide the presidency.
With the announced retirement of Sen. Herb Kohl, it creates the first open U.S. Senate seat election in Wisconsin in 24 years, when Democratic Sen. William Proxmire retired and Kohl won the seat.
Already, the seat is believed to be highly contested as Democrats hope to have U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Madison replace Kohl, while Republicans hope to recapture the magic of the election of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson as they wage a multi-candidate primary including former Gov. Tommy Thompson, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and state Sen. Frank Lasee.
Agree with them or not, the collective bargaining fight, reforms and the recall elections that followed put the Badger State in much of the political forefront for most of the year and politically galvanized the state and the nation.
Conservatives view Gov. Scott Walker as a hero and visionary for finding an innovative way to free up local elected officials from Byzantine work rules locked down in union contracts and giving officials more tools to work with beyond the traditional options of raising taxes and cutting services to balance state and local budgets. Liberals have declared Walker a national pariah who busted unions, stomped on basic human rights and vow to use every option to destroy Walker both personally and politically.
Wisconsin’s “Summer of Recall” made back-to-back Tuesday nights in August “must-see” viewing for political junkies as control of the Wisconsin State Senate was up for grabs. That’s quite an impressive task on its own, as August is often the most boring month on the U.S. political calendar with Congress on its summer recess.
Already, speculation runs high on the possible recall of Walker in 2012 as being the second-most watched election in the nation, behind only the race for president of the United States itself. If tens of millions of dollars came pouring into the state for the senate recalls during the summer, few doubt we will not see a repeat of cash infusions during a Walker recall.
Yet despite all of the above, the Wisconsinite who has had the most impact on the national political debate in 2011 has been U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Janesville Republican.
The House Budget Committee Chairman almost single-handedly has directed the nation’s discussions on fiscal matters and how to best deal with the nation’s $15 trillion debt. His budget proposal has been used as a rallying cry for both sides, with liberals seeing it as possible political manna from heaven to conservatives using it as a litmus test for the Republican presidential primary field. If not on the debate stage himself, Ryan’s ideas and proposals have been.
While not without pressure to make him a candidate for the White House in 2012, Ryan’s name is a near fixture on the short list of either a possible running mate on the Republican presidential ticket or as contender in 2016 or 2020. It’s a position no Wisconsinite has had in a major party’s political structure in quite some time, if ever.
Even the fabled “Fighting Bob” LaFollette had to form his own political party to have the kind of influence Ryan is looking at today.
The year didn’t just show the nation Wisconsin had arrived on the national stage, it showed that it took over and dominated.
But if the examples I’ve listed above aren’t enough, let me give you one more. The national White House Christmas tree, which resides in the Blue Room this holiday season, is a 19-foot balsam fir that was grown near Neshkoro, Wisc. If that’s not some form of “cheesehead domination,” what is exactly?
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.