Commentary

Robin Vos holds it together

Triangulating around the Big Lie

May 25, 2022 6:45 am
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in the pre-session news conference | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in the pre-session news conference | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

When Robin Vos is the voice of reason, you know you’re in trouble.

At the Republican state convention last weekend, delegates booed lustily when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had the temerity to state the plain facts: There is no way to recall the results of the 2020 election, remove President Joe Biden, and re-install Donald Trump. 

It shows you how far gone things are that this was even a controversial stand.

Vos continues to dump tens of thousands of dollars into the secretive partisan “investigation” of the 2020 election led by amatuer sleuth and former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who, along with Vos, has refused to produce records of his work despite being ordered to do so by a judge; used taxpayer money to pay for out-of-state trips to witness the discredited Arizona recount and attend an election conspiracy conference (Vos promised to make him pay the money back, then changed his mind); and threatened to throw the mayors of Madison and Green Bay in jail (Vos blamed the Democratic mayors for that, saying they were obstructing the investigation by insisting their testimony be heard in public). 

In his controversial remarks at the state party convention on Saturday, Vos started by declaring that there’s “one thing that I believe unites this entire Republican Party and that’s knowing that issues happened in 2020 that have to be fixed going forward to re-instill the confidence that people have in our elections.” But then he added, “I am going to say something that, I’m sorry, many of you might not want to hear, but we have no ability to decertify the election and go back and nullify it.” As the boos filled the room, Vos urged Republicans to look ahead to 2022 and 2024.

Moderator Paul Farrow jumped in to shush the crowd: “Hang on. I’m going to ask you to be respectful. We can say no, I know you disagree. And there’s some of us that do disagree on it. But let them talk.” Enough people agreed, by Sunday, that Vos survived a symbolic vote to oust him as Speaker.

Vos is a party pooper. But he’s not exactly blazing a new trail to honesty and integrity for the Republicans, whose viewpoints on elections and democracy range from A to B. 

Less there than meets the eye

In a post-convention interview with Lisa Pugh of Wisconsin Eye on Tuesday, Vos made much of the idea that the Republicans are a “diverse” bunch who welcome all kinds of ideas, unlike the Democrats, whom he describes as monolithically bad. 

But there’s less to that diversity of opinion than meets the eye. Take Vos’ answer to a question about what will happen in our state if Roe v. Wade is overturned. He is a practicing Catholic, he said, and “in the Catholic tradition, we want to guarantee that the mother’s life is at least equally if not more predominantly considered when a child is in danger.” Thus, he stated, he disagrees with “people who say they want no exceptions, even the life of the mother.” 

Does that sound like a departure from the GOP hardliners who want Wisconsin to return to the law, still on the books since 1849, that would make abortion a felony? Well, it’s not. “We already have the exception for the life of the mother in the law,” Vos clarified. So Wisconsin is all good going back to the legal standard set when slavery was legal and women didn’t have the right to vote. 

Vos did raise the possibility of making exceptions in cases of rape and incest. In such cases, “we should at least have a conversation to say, you know, what is a reasonable way for the family to be involved?” he declared. “Probably not to the ninth month of pregnancy, obviously. But you know, if it’s immediate, if it’s reported to the police, I think there should be some conversation about that.”

Like his position on election fraud, Vos looks like he’s staking out the moderate position, but it only appears to be moderate because the whole center of gravity in the Republican party has shifted so far to the right.

Sour grapes

The most notable thing about the GOP convention last weekend was its sour tone. The speakers, including Vos, focused on bashing the policies of Tony Evers, Biden and the Democrats, without offering any alternative plans. 

There was a lot of grumbling about the millions of dollars in pandemic relief that flowed into the state from the Biden administration, shepherded by Evers

There were pearls like this from Vos: “We need to make sure that every single person in Wisconsin realizes that the freebies have to end. We cannot pay people to sit on the sidelines. We cannot pay them to not use their full God-given potential to go out and earn a living and support their children.”

Poor working people and single mothers, in particular, have gotten away with highway robbery in this view, because of programs that blunted the impact of the pandemic, drastically reducing homelessness and child poverty. “If you look back at the last two years since the pandemic began, if you have a single parent with two children, the total amount of free stuff that they have gotten from the government is $60,000,” Vos told the assembled GOP delegates. “Why do you think people are not entering into the workforce?”

In fact, people, particularly mothers, are now participating in the workforce in record numbers, pushing unemployment down to 3.6% nationally, its lowest level in 50 years — and down to 2.8% in Wisconsin. Flexible work arrangements, affordable child care and the removal of other barriers to family-supporting jobs make a huge difference in women’s workforce participation. But the Republicans are relentlessly focused on the idea that people are lazy and their lives need to be made more miserable to force them to work.

Mostly, Republicans at the Wisconsin convention seemed mad that the Democrats, managing the country through a crisis, have made life better for people, with a growing economy, higher labor force participation, and higher wages across the board. 

Sour grapes, not honest policy discussion, was their theme. There was a lot of bashing of Evers and Biden for promoting vaccination and masks early in the pandemic. All of that was a mistake, speaker after speaker declared, talking about the pandemic in the past tense, as if it were now over (never mind rising cases) and insisting that it was a grave assault on “freedom” that anyone was ever asked to wear a mask at all.

The star of the show was U.S. Sen Ron Johnson, conspiracy theorist extraordinaire, who spent much of his speech complaining about his “biggest opponent — the media,” and rehearsing his grievances about how he was treated unfairly and how he would have been viewed as a hero for his anti-vax and anti-pandemic relief and pro-Jan 6 insurrectionist statements had he only been a Democrat. Poor RoJo.

The whole show made me wonder how much farther the politics of resentment can carry the GOP. 

Instead of laying out a vision for a better future, they are putting people on notice that they plan to make life harder for workers, hire more police to kick more butt, get the government out of the public health business and into your underwear. Stoking fear and resentment is a well-worn political strategy, but the sum total of the Republican plan seems to be to make most people’s lives worse. You’d think that might give voters pause.

It was interesting to hear Vos lay out, in his post-convention interview with Wisconsin Eye, what he sees as the three groups of people who currently comprise the Republican party: traditional, pro-business conservatives, social conservatives, and the people he described as “kind of populist Trumpy.” It’s that last group that voted to oust him as Speaker and has been giving him fits.

Vos says it’s good for the party to expand the base. In the end, “We just have to remember that nobody in this coalition is the enemy of the other. And frankly, we pretty much believe all the same things,” he said. 

That’s an easier lift if you don’t believe anything at all.

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Ruth Conniff
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.

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