I rarely disagree with the Washington Post's top wonk Ezra Klein, but I do today. Klein is right that the most politically "lethal" thing about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's 20-minute conversation with a prankster posing as right-wing moneybags David Koch is that it happened at all. But he's wrong when he says "the transcript of the conversation is unexceptional" and that "to Walker's credit, he doesn't say anything incriminating."
I think Walker's comments are hugely incriminating, maybe not legally, although the governor does seem to say yes ("That would be outstanding!") to a Koch-funded trip to California to reward his work supporting the super-rich, which could be construed as the promise of an illegal gift. But listening to Walker lay out his plans to trick Democrats into returning to Wisconsin, brag about his national popularity, compare himself to Ronald Reagan and joke about the "stereotypical blue-collar worker types" who support his union busting, I thought the conversation incriminated Walker as an enormous hypocrite: someone who pretends he's protecting state taxpayers and beleaguered private-sector employees, but is really part of a cynical fat-cat movement to pit workers against one another while insisting "it's all about gettin' our freedom back!" You really have to hear it (audio here) or read it all (transcript below) to believe it.
My favorite part is when "Koch" suggests that if Walker meets with Democrats he should "bring a baseball bat, that's what I'd do," and the governor chirps: "I have one in my office; you’d be happy with that. I have a slugger with my name on it," like he's talking to his daddy. Which makes sense, since Koch is at least Walker's political sugar daddy.
But the saddest part is when Walker brags that the supposedly liberal New York Times "has a great story," in which the writer interviews "every stereotypical blue-collar worker type" and finds that, just like a guy repeatedly laid off by General Motors, they all support his taking on the public workers' unions -- unless, of course, they're a public worker or married to one. Oops. The Times story in question is tragic, as victims of the economy blame their troubles not on employers, but on public workers' unions. "There are a lot of people out of work right now that would take a job without a union," a bar owner in Whitewater told the Times. A woman who works at a billboard advertising company opined: "I know there was a point for unions back in the day because people were being abused. But now there’s workers' rights; there's laws that protect us." Laws that unions fought for, of course.
Part of the massive business crusade to reverse the economic gains of the '60s and '70s involved busting unions where they existed, and making it hard for workers to join them where they didn't. That's why the percentage of private sector workers who are unionized dropped from over a third of the American workforce to just 7 percent today (more than a third of public sector workers still enjoy union protection). Unions aren't perfect, and public sector unions certainly aren't. They've protected bad apples in schools and other public agencies, they can make system change harder, they've fought to hold onto generous health plans the private sector can't touch. They still have pensions, even if they're less generous, at a time when most people are lucky to have a 401K plan, let alone one that's matched. Of course the same forces that want to strip away pensions also want to cut Social Security, putting the traditional ways we've supported senior citizens at risk.
I've noted before that the dominance of public sector unions is a problem for workers, and for Democrats. Reviewing Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's great "Winner-Take-All Politics," I wrote last year: "The only gains for unions have come in the public sector, and that's politically problematic for Democrats, as it seems as though 'our' tax dollars pay for worker protections and benefits that the rest of us don't enjoy." Clearly Republican governors, funded by the Koch brothers and other plutocrats, have figured that out, and decided to strike workers, and Democrats, where they're vulnerable.
That's why, despite my occasional frustrations with public sector unions, I shake my head at supposed liberals like Joe Klein, who's come out against the Wisconsin unions, and Charles Lane, who heinously purported to channel Gabrielle Giffords when decrying the Wisconsin protesters' alleged lack of "civility." I can't even agree with my friend Michael Lind, who says Walker's breaking the public sector unions might have a silver lining for liberals, because "the right would deprive itself of an enemy. And the divide-and-rule tactics of the right might be less likely to succeed if all American workers -- private and public -- were in the same situation with respect to benefits and workplace rights." Lind acknowledges that "liberals would have to create a popular political movement capable of replacing the lost legions of organized labor at the polls." In other words, American liberals would have to organize. But he's silent on who would do that organizing, and around what issues. Plus, if I had a dime for every time a liberal has suggested a political setback -- Ronald Reagan's election, or George W. Bush's -- could be a blessing in disguise for liberalism, I'd be as rich as the Kochs.
I'd prefer to do both: Fight Walker's war on Wisconsin's public sector unions, while figuring out other ways to build a large, popular movement to combat the power of the Kochs. I went to high school and college in Wisconsin, and I've been proud to be a Badger for the last couple of weeks.
Here's a transcript of the conversation from the Buffalo Beast, which has been down all day presumably due to high traffic. Visit the Beast, but in the meantime, here's what they put up early this a.m.
Walker: Hi; this is Scott Walker.
Koch: Scott! David Koch. How are you?
Walker: Hey, David! I’m good. And yourself?
Koch: I’m very well. I’m a little disheartened by the situation there, but, uh, what’s the latest?
Walker: Well, we’re actually hanging pretty tough. I mean—you know, amazingly there’s a much smaller group of protesters—almost all of whom are in from other states today. The State Assembly is taking the bill up—getting it all the way to the last point it can be at where it’s unamendable. But they’re waiting to pass it until the Senate’s—the Senate Democrats, excuse me, the assembly Democrats have about a hundred amendments they’re going through. The state Senate still has the 14 members missing but what they’re doing today is bringing up all sorts of other non-fiscal items, many of which are things members in the Democratic side care about. And each day we’re going to ratchet it up a little bit…. The Senate majority leader had a great plan he told about this morning—he told the Senate Democrats about and he’s going to announce it later today, and that is: The Senate organization committee is going to meet and pass a rule that says if you don’t show up for two consecutive days on a session day—in the state Senate, the Senate chief clerk—it’s a little procedural thing here, but—can actually have your payroll stopped from being automatically deducted—
Walker: —into your checking account and instead—you still get a check, but the check has to be personally picked up and he’s instructing them—which we just loved—to lock them in their desk on the floor of the state Senate.
Koch: Now you’re not talking to any of these Democrat bastards, are you?
Walker: Ah, I—there’s one guy that’s actually voted with me on a bunch of things I called on Saturday for about 45 minutes, mainly to tell him that while I appreciate his friendship and he’s worked with us on other things, to tell him I wasn’t going to budge.
Koch: Goddamn right!
Walker: …his name is Tim Cullen—
Koch: All right, I’ll have to give that man a call.
Walker: Well, actually, in his case I wouldn’t call him and I’ll tell you why: he’s pretty reasonable but he’s not one of us…
Koch: Now who can we get to budge on this collective bargaining?
Walker: …I think the paycheck will have an impact…secondly, one of the things we’re looking at next…we’re still waiting on an opinion to see if the unions have been paying to put these guys up out of state. We think there’s at minimum an ethics violation if not an outright felony.
Koch: Well, they’re probably putting hobos in suits.
Koch: That’s what we do. Sometimes.
Walker: I mean paying for the senators to be put up. I know they’re paying for these guy—I mean, people can pay for protesters to come in and that’s not an ethics code, but, I mean, literally if the unions are paying the 14 senators—their food, their lodging, anything like that…[*** Important regarding his later acceptance of a Koch offer to “show him a good time.” ***]
[I was stunned. I am stunned. In the interest of expediting the release of this story, here are the juiciest bits:]
Walker: …I’ve got layoff notices ready…
Koch: Beautiful; beautiful. Gotta crush that union.
Walker: [bragging about how he doesn't budge]…I would be willing to sit down and talk to him, the assembly Democrat leader, plus the other two Republican leaders—talk, not negotiate and listen to what they have to say if they will in turn—but I’ll only do it if all 14 of them will come back and sit down in the state assembly…legally, we believe, once they’ve gone into session, they don’t physically have to be there. If they’re actually in session for that day, and they take a recess, the 19 Senate Republicans could then go into action and they’d have quorum…so we’re double checking that. If you heard I was going to talk to them that’s the only reason why. We’d only do it if they came back to the capital with all 14 of them…
Koch: Bring a baseball bat. That’s what I’d do.
Walker: I have one in my office; you’d be happy with that. I have a slugger with my name on it.
Walker: So this is ground zero, there’s no doubt about it. [Talks about a "great" NYT piece of "objective journalism." Talks about how most private blue-collar workers have turned against public, unionized workers.]…So I went through and called a handful, a dozen or so lawmakers I worry about each day and said, “Everyone, we should get that story printed out and send it to anyone giving you grief.”
Koch: Goddamn right! We, uh, we sent, uh, Andrew Breitbart down there.
Walker: Good stuff.
Koch: He’s our man, you know.
Walker: [blah about his press conferences, attacking Obama, and all the great press he's getting.] Brian [Sadoval], the new Governor of Nevada, called me the last night he said—he was out in the Lincoln Day Circuit in the last two weekends and he was kidding me, he said, “Scott, don’t come to Nevada because I’d be afraid you beat me running for governor.” That’s all they want to talk about is what are you doing to help the governor of Wisconsin. I talk to Kasich every day—John’s gotta stand firm in Ohio. I think we could do the same thing with Vic Scott in Florida. I think, uh, Snyder—if he got a little more support—probably could do that in Michigan. You start going down the list there’s a lot of us new governors that got elected to do something big.
Koch: You’re the first domino.
Walker: Yep. This is our moment.
Koch: Now what else could we do for you down there?
Walker: Well the biggest thing would be—and your guy on the ground [Americans For Prosperity president Tim Phillips] is probably seeing this [stuff about all the people protesting, and some of them flip him off].
[Abrupt end of first recording, and start of second.]
Walker: [Bullshit about doing the right thing and getting flipped off by “union bulls,” and the decreasing number of protesters. Or some such.]
Koch: We’ll back you any way we can. What we were thinking about the crowd was, uh, was planting some troublemakers.
Walker: You know, well, the only problem with that —because we thought about that. The problem—the, my only gut reaction to that is right now the lawmakers I’ve talked to have just completely had it with them, the public is not really fond of this…[explains that planting troublemakers may not work.] My only fear would be if there’s a ruckus caused is that maybe the governor has to settle to solve all these problems…[something about '60s liberals.]…Let ‘em protest all they want…Sooner or later the media stops finding it interesting.
Koch: Well, not the liberal bastards on MSNBC.
Walker: Oh yeah, but who watches that? I went on “Morning Joe” this morning. I like it because I just like being combative with those guys, but, uh. You know they’re off the deep end.
Koch: Joe—Joe’s a good guy. He’s one of us.
Walker: Yeah, he’s all right. He was fair to me…[bashes NY Senator Chuck Schumer, who was also on the program.]
Koch: Beautiful; beautiful. You gotta love that Mika Brzezinski; she’s a real piece of ass.
Walker: Oh yeah. [story about when he hung out with human pig Jim Sensenbrenner at some D.C. function and he was sitting next to Brzezinski and her father, and their guest was David Axelrod. He introduced himself.]
Koch: That son of a bitch!
Walker: Yeah no kidding huh?…
Koch: Well, good; good. Good catching up with ya’.
Walker: This is an exciting time [blah, blah, blah, Super Bowl reference followed by an odd story of pulling out a picture of Ronald Reagan and explaining to his staff the plan to crush the union the same way Reagan fired the air traffic controllers]…that was the first crack in the Berlin Wall because the Communists then knew Reagan wasn’t a pushover. [Blah, blah, blah. He's exactly like Reagan. Won't shut up about how awesome he is.]
Koch: [Laughs] Well, I tell you what, Scott: once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time.
Walker: All right, that would be outstanding. Thanks for all the support…it’s all about getting our freedoms back…
Koch: Absolutely. And, you know, we have a little bit of a vested interest as well. [Laughs]
Walker: [Blah] Thanks a million!