To its discredit, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature has moved swiftly to curb the powers of Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who last month defeated GOP Gov. Scott Walker in Walker’s bid for a third term.
It should have been clear to Republicans that Wisconsin voters, in choosing Evers, were not voting for a governor who would have less power than Walker. But Republicans disrespected their will, and this week rammed through a bill that would limit the authority of a governor simply because he is of the opposing party. That’s not how democracy works in this country.
Republicans also moved to hamstring incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, and to shorten the early voting that they apparently blame for their failure to win a single statewide seat. Worse, the powers they went after could prevent Evers and Kaul from acting on the very issues they campaigned on and which voters supported.
Political parties will always look for every conceivable advantage in their efforts to advance their agendas. Republicans and Democrats alike have found ways to push limits over the years, sometimes to comical extents, as when Wisconsin’s Democratic lawmakers fled the state to temporarily block passage of an anti-union bill that Walker had championed.
But what’s occurring now is in a different category. The U.S. Constitution is not an exhaustive document. Rather, it relies heavily on a commonly held set of beliefs upon which are built norms and rules that guide the finer points of representative government. In the current era, those norms are being tested as never before and many are just collapsing — and not just in Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s actions are similar to proposals in Michigan from a Republican legislature moving to limit the power of newly elected statewide Democrats. And in 2016, North Carolina Republican lawmakers moved to reduce the authority of incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, setting off two years of court battles.
Wisconsin Republicans have attempted to brush this off as “inside baseball” or by asserting that they are simply “balancing” power in the state. But they saw no need for such rebalancing when led by a Republican governor. Voters should reject such thin and obvious rationalizations of what is fast leading to a no-holds-barred tribalism that accepts no defeat and which erodes the peaceful transfer of power that has been democracy’s hallmark.
“When you have an election and voters make a decision, and one party decides to undermine that by removing longstanding powers from officials, you’re undermining the building blocks of our democratic political system,” said Norm Ornstein, a noted political scientist and commentator at the American Enterprise Institute. “I find this deeply troubling. If they get away with this, we are seeing precedents that could lead to a very different form of government.” Ornstein noted that what’s occurring in Wisconsin and elsewhere would be nearly impossible in a number of other Western democracies, including Germany. “Countries that have slid into autocracies have been more careful about building in safeguards,” he told an editorial writer. “We’ve always assumed what happened in other countries could not possibly happen here, but it is happening.”
Walker has a chance to go out on a note of grace here and veto an odious bill that would curtail gubernatorial power in a way he never would have accepted had he won a third term.
Minnesotans, meanwhile, should take note. There is little to prevent a similar scenario from unfolding here save the watchfulness of voters and what remains — despite the gridlock and shutdowns and occasional legal fencing between executive and legislative branches — a still substantial adherence by both parties to norms that allow the two sides to work together.
As the only state in the country with a divided state legislature, Minnesota has the opportunity to be a model for principled bipartisanship that values competing ideas and compromise.