MADISON, Wisconsin—Walker Derangement Syndrome is dead. A few hours ago, unions and their supporters held one last protest before the passage of right-to-work legislation in Wisconsin, and it was a staid affair. This is not normal. People who don’t like Scott Walker typically aren’t calm about it.
Walker is a strong contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination largely because upward of 100,000 protesters descended on the state capitol in 2011 when he oversaw the passage of legislation that dramatically curbed the power of public-sector unions. Walker’s ability to draw rage from the left transcends space, time, and state lines—during his speech at CPAC last week, he shouted down a heckler and drew raucous applause from the conservative attendees.
Today’s event was comparatively sedate. Instead of thousands of protesters, I’d estimate there were hundreds. And though a few signs were eyebrow-raising (when I tried to take a picture of one that said “May 1933 Hitler abolishes unions … ” the sign-bearer’s friend stepped in front of it, asked if I was press, and then said, “No”), the event on the whole was calm, low-key, and resigned. No madness. No obscenity. Nothing diagnosable.
Rabbi Renee Bauer gave an invocation that touched on the Old Testament story of Esther, who helped save the Jewish people from mass murder. But the mood outside the Capitol didn’t feel life-or-death at all (though one protester’s sign did say “WISCONSIN REPUBLICANS THE NEW EBOLA OF USA POLITICS”). Wisconsin state AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt led the crowd in chants of “Solidarity! Unity! Togetherness!” between speakers, and the demonstrators filtered back into the capitol to a Dropkick Murphys song after everyone was done talking about low fast-food wages and the importance of organizing.
“Our plan is to have them go in, bear witness, listen to the debate, and have them understand which side this legislature’s really on,” said Neuenfeldt afterward.
“It’s about coming together collectively as we always do, to figure out how we move forward,” he added.
Shannon Maier, a county worker and AFSCME member who spoke to the group, told me afterward that the rally turnout would have been bigger if the vote hadn’t been in the middle of a workday.
“This stuff happens during the week,” she said. “It’s never when it’s convenient for the working families of America.”
Others proffered different explanations.
“At this point they know this bill’s going to pass, there’s not going to be any recalls, and it’s kind of like—they’re kind of out of gas,” said Collin Roth, the managing editor of Right Wisconsin.
Walker can’t be happy about today’s calm.
“Walker is able to promote policies, sign bills, come up with legislation that just drives the left crazy and makes them make irrational decisions that cross the lines of political decency,” said Matt Batzel, the national executive director of the conservative group American Majority. “And it backfires on them. In some ways, this explains why Walker’s been so successful in Wisconsin: He gets such an outrageous reaction from the left.”
The right has become quite adept at capitalizing on that outrage. Roth explained that the new conservative infrastructure in Wisconsin—including Right Wisconsin, Media Trackers, and the MacIver Institute (the “free market voice for Wisconsin”)—learned during the 2011 protests how to push countervailing media narratives about Walker’s foes.
Roth cited a story that broke a few weeks ago about protesters showing up at the Wauwatosa home of Walker’s parents. Walker’s sons, Matt and Alex, both tweeted that news out. “That gets hyped by talk radio, we at Right Wisconsin reported on that, other groups pushed that out, and all of a sudden Walker was on Megyn Kelly the next night talking about it,” Roth said. “None of us orchestrated anything, but we’ve gotten really good at seeing an opportunity and running with it.”
“Boom, narrative done,” he added.
The protests today didn’t give Walker’s allies much opportunity for boom narrative done.
“It’s kind of been a fait accompli,” Roth said. “We all know how it ends this time.”