Republican moderates and the banality of evil

Sen. Luther Olsen leaves office without taking a stand

Sen. Luther Olsen (screenshot from Wisconsin Eye)
Sen. Luther Olsen (screenshot from Wisconsin Eye)

If ever there were a time for so-called Republican moderates to stop making excuses for Donald Trump and stand up for some core values, it has long since come and gone.

Yet here was retiring state Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), in his farewell interview with WisconsinEye on June 15, answering a question about what grade he would give Donald Trump:

“Well, conduct not so well — you know, you get your grade and then you get your conduct grade,” Olsen said.  “He’s done some good things, but he just tweets too much. He talks too much.”

Olsen expressed concern that the president — who fired the federal prosecutor in Manhattan who has been investigating his allies, disastrously mismanaged the nation’s response to the pandemic, urged his supporters to attend an indoor mass gathering (after signing away their rights to sue if they got sick) and threatened rough treatment for “any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes” who tried to disrupt his poorly attended rally in Tulsa, Okla.— is not a good role model for children “and even for adults, because now he’s played into this tribal mentality.”

But he Olsen plans to vote for Trump. “I’m gonna vote for him,” Olsen told Steve Walters on Wisconsin Eye. Why?  “If Biden was the guy, I think he’s old,” Olsen explained lamely, adding “nothing wrong with being old.” Plus, “I don’t agree with his politics.”  “So,” he concluded, “sometimes you take the good with the bad.”

That’s it? 

On the one hand, violent white nationalism and a corrupt, authoritarian government, on the other hand, tax cuts.

As the Republican leadership loses even the veneer of civility, the aw-shucks, “take the good with the bad” approach looks like nothing more than appeasement.

But then, Olsen has spent his career raising the hopes of Democrats, moderates and especially public school advocates, only to end up letting them down by closing ranks with his party.  

Despite his two decades serving on his local school board and his claim that his proudest accomplishment is his work on K-12 education, he voted with his party to slash funding for public schools, and to expand a voucher program that he himself previously acknowledged the state could not afford.

Unlike Dale Schultz, another Republican legislator who was viewed throughout his career as a friend of public schools, at the end of the day Olsen didn’t stop the school-choice lobby from setting up two separate, publicly funded school systems — one public, one private — that Olsen has conceded are unaffordable. And he went along with former Gov. Scott Walker’s incredibly divisive attack on teachers’ unions with Act 10.

Luther Olsen

Here is how Olsen describes the historic conflict over Act 10, which divided the state, brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the Capitol, and awakened one of the most pivotal ideological debates over civil society and labor rights the state has ever seen: “I think we had to do it. I mean, we didn’t have any money.”

“So what were we going to do?” Olsen added. “Were we going to say, ‘OK schools, we don’t have the money?’ We weren’t gonna raise taxes.”

It’s true that Walker called Act 10 a “budget repair bill,” but it’s purpose was to disempower unions — a political move, not a financial one. 

Wisconsin, once a beacon of high-quality public education, also faced brutal budget cuts under Walker, and a hostile work environment for teachers that drove a rash of early retirements and a steep drop in interest in the profession. Our state now ranks 33rd for teacher pay, just ahead of Mississippi.

Meanwhile, through the expansion of the private-school voucher program, the state is funneling taxpayer dollars out of public schools to cover private-school tuition.

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Olsen said in his exit interview that the massive expansion of private-school choice programs has been “a good thing for kids.” What he worries about, he said, is “a check in every backpack, where we pay for every child no matter their income, all across the state, because I don’t think we got enough money to do that.”

Yet that is exactly where Wisconsin is headed, thanks, in part, to Olsen — who knows better — caving in on the school-voucher expansion. 

Olsen has somehow managed to take a pass on the biggest moments in history during his 25-year career, maintaining his bland, go-along-to-get-along approach in the face of massive disruption, protest, and, with Trump, the complete meltdown of his party. 

Unlike Schultz, he wasn’t willing to fall on his sword and face the potentially career-ending threat of a primary challenge from the right. But now that he’s leaving, why not say something meaningful?  

Olsen is out the door, but he’s still carrying water for the mean kids who run his party.

Take his answer on redistricting. What’s wrong with Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal for a nonpartisan commission to redraw the next set of voting district maps, Walters asked him. 

“It’s always nice to have somebody have some ideas on maps,” Olsen answered innocently. “The Legislature still has the responsibility. And I don’t think it’s necessary in this redistricting period because we have split government. So, the Legislature will come up with a map, the governor will veto it and it’ll go to the courts and the courts will decide.”

And if the Republicans have their way in a current lawsuit, their handmaidens in the state Supreme Court will intervene and make sure that Wisconsin remains the most gerrymandered state in the nation.

Republican gerrymandering not only locks in Republican control of the Legislature in a state that voted for Democrats in every statewide race in 2018, it has also driven moderates out of office unless, like Olsen, they are willing to move to the right for fear of a primary challenge.

Majorities of Wisconsinites of every political stripe favor nonpartisan redistricting and fair maps.

Come on, Luther!

If not for schools or redistricting, at least take a stand on the racist bully in the White House as you make your valedictory speeches.

Olsen represents Ripon, the birthplace of the Republican Party, which has traveled a long, long way from the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Trump.

Throughout his career, he has been a voice of Wisconsin’s moderately conservative-minded citizens who have a certain aversion to loud debate and argument, but also display a laudable community spirit. 

On one issue, in his exit interview, Olsen showed a flicker of enlightenment. After years of resisting the federal Medicaid expansion, he allowed that now might be the time for his party to change policies, in the midst of the pandemic and economic collapse.

It’s something. But it’s not enough.

Olsen’s head-in-the-sand reaction to Trump is indicative of where a lot of Trump voters in Wisconsin are — congenital Republicans who prefer to stick their fingers in their ears and vote for Trump while dismissing his racist aggression as just a bunch of hot air. Taking the good with the bad. 

But the bad is getting worse. 

Forget the bromides. The times demand real leadership.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.