Wisconsin Democrats weigh in on the fight in Washington

July 23, 2011

For the 60 or so Democrats crammed into a chocolate shop Saturday morning to rally around a local legislative candidate, the standoff in Washington over raising the debt ceiling feels all too familiar.

Wisconsin Republicans, these Democrats say, broke a cardinal rule of state politics during a dramatic budget standoff last winter: They refused to compromise. The similarities are abundant, these Democrats say, to what’s happening in Washington.

And so while the most ardent Democrats elsewhere have not hesitated to criticize President Obama for a willingness to compromise too much, here in Wisconsin, the view is much stronger that this is what leaders are supposed to do — and that now it’s the GOP’s turn.

“They were not even listening, and that’s just not the way we do things in Wisconsin,” said Shelly Moore, a schoolteacher running for state Senate, who was referring to state Republicans but might just as easily have been talking about Washington.

“We’ve always sat down and talked things through and found ways to compromise and be reasonable, because we knew at the end of the day, whatever political party you came from, whatever part of the state you came from, we were all in this together.”

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, half of all Democrats said the president was “too willing” to compromise with the GOP on the deficit. One reason: Democrats across the country broadly oppose some of the changes to the entitlement programs that have been on the table.

Although here, too, Democrats overwhelmingly oppose cuts to Medicaid or changes in Medicare and Social Security benefits, they say they are grateful to see Obama willing to stay at the table. You must give something to get something, they said, and they think Obama has done so — and Republicans have not.

“This situation is really starting to scare me,” said Chris Danou, a former police officer and member of the Wisconsin State Assembly helping Moore’s campaign. “I would like a deal, but a deal doesn’t mean you give them everything and you get nothing. That’s not a deal. That’s capitulation.”

Democrats here are in the midst of an effort to recall six Republican lawmakers in special elections scheduled for Aug. 9. Moore, the teacher, hopes to unseat state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf not only because she opposes Harsdorf’s votes to end collective bargaining for public workers or to cut deeply into public education and state universities. It’s because Harsdorf voted with a Republican majority that ignored all other points of view.

Like partisan Democrats elsewhere, the crowd was not lacking for ideologically driven activists who are frustrated that, in their view, Obama has already compromised too much.

“I was very disappointed that this was not what he ran on,” said Janeene Gellerman, 76, a retiree who was so upset that Obama was willing to offer up cuts to Medicare and Social Security that she sent a letter to the White House. “I know I’m safe. My money is going to continue. No change is going to take place in my benefits until I die, probably. But I was just kind of dumbfounded to hear that he was going to make this compromise.”

But for most others, there was more appreciation for what Obama has done than might be expected at such a partisan gathering. There is a fine line, many said, between artful compromise and going too far — and although some days it’s hard to know which way Obama is leaning, they trust his position right now.

“It feels like we’re caving in or making too much for a compromise,” said Diane Mercil, 57, who works in the banking industry. “But we just have to do it.”

There is also a faith in Obama that stems from past showdowns with Republicans in which short-term discontent with his negotiations made way for a longer view that he’d done more than was initially apparent to stand up for his party’s priorities.

“He did get some things in the last budget that were really good — the extension of unemployment benefits,” Gellerman said. “The devil’s always in the details.”

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