Wisconsin protests: How did everyone in Madison become obsessed with the Koch brothers?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 23 2011 7:44 PM

Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2

How did everyone in Wisconsin become obsessed with the Koch brothers?

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I asked one protester, Jeanne Duffy, what the difference was between the benefits unions get when Democrats are in power, and the benefits the Kochs get when Republicans win.

"Did the unions, when they were in 'power' "—she made scare quotes with her fingers— "pass bills to abolish the Heritage Foundation? Or did they use it to expand BadgerCare? The point of what the unions are doing is to make this a more democratic nation, where more people get more access to what they need. I mean, could you or I call Gov. Walker and get 20 minutes with him?"

Ah, yes, the phone call: That's why the Koch drama dominated Madison today. On Tuesday, Buffalo Beast writer Ian Murphy had called Scott Walker's office, posing as David Koch (and sounding very little like him) and talked his way into a 20-minute conversation. The transcript of the call was embarrassing, with the governor saying more about his strategy and peeves than he'd done in a week of media interviews. He thought he might nail the 14 Senate Democrats who'd fled the state on an ethics violation, if their lodging was paid for by unions. He was dismissive about their demands.

But the details of the conversation hardly mattered to the protesters. To them, the call was a game-changer simply because it existed. Walker took the call; he knew who Koch was; he talked for 20 minutes. Democrats in the state Assembly, who had been mentioning the Koch-Walker connections or the no-bid-power-plant theory throughout their debate, took to the floor on Wednesday to ask what Walker knew about Koch and when he knew him.

"These Koch brothers!" said a worried-sounding Rep. Gary Hebl. "These Koch brothers are talking to Gov. Walker!"

After Walker participated in a tense press conference dominated by questions about the Koch tapes, Democratic Rep. Brett Hulsey took questions and explained why the Koch conversation rattled Democrats while confirming their suspicions. The call was evidence of "pay for play."

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"It was shocking to us," he said. "We now understand why [Walker] killed the train money, why he killed the wind development, why he killed $46 million of transit money. He's in the pocket of big oil interests."

I asked why this proved that these were things David Koch wanted.

"I'm not going to talk about a vast right-wing conspiracy like Mrs. Clinton," he said, laughing. "But I've seen this movie before."

How did the Kochs become the villains of Madison? They have, for decades, bankrolled libertarian think tanks and programs, and they help put on conferences where conservative ideas are spread. Among the ideas they end up spreading are drug legalization and opposition to the Patriot Act. The Tea Party was the first movement funded in part by the Kochs that really took off.

So why credit everything that Republicans are trying to do now to Kochs' influence? Partly because they do have some influence, and partly, as the Assembly Democrats kept goading Republicans, because they are shadowy "New York billionaires." A complicated fight over public-sector unions can be broadened into a stand against secretive malefactors of wealth, who can be connected somehow to every conservative victory or idea. And the fear and paranoia grows, because, theoretically, they could be spending more than anyone knows. If Citizens United lets conservatives spend more money secretly, it has a hell of a side effect.

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