The dean of the Wisconsin Assembly thinks history holds the key to his party’s resurgence.
The way we were
Rep. Marlin Schneider
We Democrats need to return to our roots, to find and establish an agenda and to remember our proud history. It was Democrats who brought us out of the Great Depression, fought and won two world wars, developed the policy of the containment of communism, fought for civil rights and voting rights, brought us Social Security and Medicare, gave labor the right to organize and bargain collectively, and brought us Earth Day and a concern for the environment. It was Democrats who brought us the electrification of rural America, public works projects that built roads, bridges, dams, sidewalks and schools, and it was Democrats under President Bill Clinton who balanced the budget and gave us a surplus.
I started my career in the Wisconsin Legislature 33 years ago, serving alongside giants who had principles and cared about the institution. They were people who had the courage to take on special interests, mitigate greed, and defend the integrity of the legislative branch as equal to the executive. I am talking about men and women like Bob Huber, Norman Anderson, Tony Earl, Midge Miller and many others on the Democratic side, as well as Republicans like John Shabaz, Harold Froehlich, and Ken Merkel.
Today, the Republican Party is dominated by radical extremists and beholden to religious fanatics who want to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us. The right wing wags the whole Republican dog. Republicans see their more moderate colleagues going down in flames against rightwing extremists in primaries, so they are afraid to take on their own caucus.
Democrats, meanwhile, have become in many ways me-too Republicans who want to cut programs that help the poor and needy, maintain tax systems that benefit the wealthy, and grovel to the special interests that bankroll increasingly and exorbitantly expensive campaigns. Gone are the days when Democrats would unite to fight racism in Milwaukee over open housing, fight against the greed and avarice of banks and credit granting institutions, or vote to strengthen environmental laws. Gone, too, are the days when Republicans like Merkel, a John Birch Society member from Brookfield, would stand alone against his party to fight against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools in spite of the political consequences.
Today, money drives the system. Money dominates the political agenda. It was not like that before. Democrats do not want to offend anyone by mentioning tax hikes to prevent massive tuition increases at the university because some special interest or other might be offended.
A $1,000 annual increase in tuition at UW-Madison is apparently not a tax hike? We cannot raise taxes to support local governments or Medical Assistance or schools because Democrats buy into the Republican no-new-taxes agenda? Because we are so timid, we have now even lost the initiative over property taxes to the GOP. Our Democratic governor wants to do the GOP’s dirty work and cut more and more state employees.
Our governor also eliminates the Department of Electronic Government just when the new technologies are overwhelming the law and the federal government and George W. is undermining the Constitution with Patriot Acts and Homeland Security measures. Only lonely Russ Feingold has the courage to say no.
The old time Democrats who used to do it the grass roots way are dying off. Legislative campaigns are dominated from Madison and the combination of the money and the GOP dominance of the executive branch for the past 16 years has debilitated and demoralized the Democrats.
To listen to this right-wing propaganda on the radio and Fox “News” one would think we were all traitors. The truth is that my party’s legacy compares more than favorably to that of the Republican legacy of Teapot Dome, the Great Depression, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and now massive budget deficits. The true patriots are Democrats who stand up for the Constitution and not those who wrap themselves in the flag for political gain and foster dissention and discord among our people over gay rights and abortion.
My bet is that more Democrats died on the beaches of Normandy, the sands of Iwo Jima and the jungles of Vietnam than there were Young Americans for Freedom. These Republicans talk a good game to take American’s minds off their real problems and offer simple, popular, wrong-headed solutions. Still, Democrats come across as weak on national defense and crime, and in favor of taking away the rights of gun owners.
It is time for Democrats to take back America and Wisconsin. Democrats need to develop a strong foreign and military policy just like John F. Kennedy did. America needs a well-developed bipartisan foreign policy to deal with the long and bitter struggle we are engaged in with Muslim extremists that is likely to continue for decades. No amount of politically correct rhetoric is going to change that fact. We also need to develop a foreign policy that is not the knee jerk “Israel can do no wrong”; a foreign policy that treats Arab nations and cultures with dignity and respect and helps bring democracy to those nations.
We need to stand up to Saudi Arabia and its repressive regime and culture and not bow in homage or fear to their oil reserves. We need a strong and coherent energy policy that stresses conservation and not gas-guzzling SUV’s. We should support the president when he is right and oppose him when he is wrong based on what is right for our country, not on some perceived partisan advantage.
Democrats should be the first to support our troops, National Guard and reserves and provide them the help and support and benefits they need and deserve. We must not allow the Republican administration to hide benefits from them. Nor should we ever again allow them to attack veterans like Senator Max Cleland of Georgia as unpatriotic.
Democrats need a strong and defensible agenda on the information policy that is undermining our Constitutional rights. Our freedoms are eroding at an alarming rate, but this is almost completely ignored by most politicians because they are old or middle aged and could not tell a teraflop from a gigabyte. These technologies present a clear and present danger to our Bill of Rights and are the most insidious and serious threat to liberty in our nation’s history.
Democrats need to fight against trickle-down economics and favoritism for companies that take jobs away from America and Americans. We need to be the ones to make sure that everyone has a living wage and good health care. Our seniors should not have to go to Canada to buy drugs. Our energy companies must be brought to task for their greed.
Democrats in the Wisconsin Legislature need to stand against this move to the right and fight, obstruct, delay, battle, and instead stand up for what is right. Only then will we return to the majority and a place in the sun, and maybe even a place in history.
August 19, 2003
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Marlin Schneider lives in Wisconsin Rapids and represents the 72nd district in the Wisconsin Assembly.