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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

APTOPIX Alabama Senate

Could Democrat Doug Jones' U.S. Senate victory in deep-red Alabama signal a political sea change?

With the many remembrances around the centennial of the Cap Times this week, maybe Joe McCarthy was simply top of mind.

After all, our founder, William T. Evjue, passionately criticized Wisconsin’s demagogic U.S. senator for his fanatical charges of treason and subversion against innocent people. And in return, McCarthy, a Republican, loathed Evjue.

Many know the quote that marked the beginning of the end of McCarthy’s reign of terror. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, Army attorney Joseph Welch interrupted one of McCarthy’s rants and admonished: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”


That word came to mind after Alabama’s U.S. Senate race this week, when a decent and moderate Democrat named Doug Jones stunned Roy Moore, the loutish and eccentric abuser of laws and allegedly teenage girls. Moore, like Donald Trump, was a quintessentially indecent candidate.

Could this single outcome, occurring in a red state in the Deep South, foreshadow a tide that will repudiate many things Trump, and with it, also drag down Republicans like Gov. Scott Walker, politicians who embraced or at least were silent about the Moore-Trump style even as things grew increasingly grotesque?

Let’s consider it.

For as long as I can recall, Democrats have surged in presidential years, when their voters are most dialed in, and then fared less well in off years as attentiveness wanes. In Wisconsin, that helps explain Barack Obama victories in 2008 and 2012 even as Walker won two regular elections and one recall vote. And 2018 again will be an off year.

Yet 2017 began with historically large and angry protests across the nation and around the world by women and others after Trump’s inauguration.

And now the year ends with this stunning Alabama election, suggesting that even in a state known for rejecting Democrats over civil rights for half a century, it’s possible for decency to triumph.

On election night, winning candidate Jones said: “The campaign has been about common courtesy and decency and making sure everyone in the state, regardless of which zip code they live in, is going to get a fair shake in life.”

Decency, of course, is foreign to Trump.

On the day Alabama voted, Trump suggested on Twitter that Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator from New York, is a whore after she called on him to resign in the face of renewed charges of his pre-election sexual abuse of multiple women. Trump said Gillibrand would come “begging” for campaign contributions and “do anything” for money when he was a businessman — an attack loaded with sexual innuendo.

Opinion writers roasted Trump; my favorite was an editorial from USA Today, seldom an outspoken voice: “A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush. This isn’t about the policy differences we have with all presidents. … The basic decency of each man was never in doubt.”

There’s that word again.

It seems to me that in 2018, Wisconsin has the opportunity to restore decency to its politics, just as Alabama did this week.

The GOP’s indecency in Wisconsin begins with the party’s tolerance — embrace even — of Trump-style politics when it placates wealthy donors. But the bigger GOP indecency in Wisconsin is how the party governs, year after year, by favoring donors over ordinary Wisconsin residents.

For Democrats, a pathway to victory might look like this.

It starts with nominating high-quality candidates for governor and for legislative seats who — buoyed by recent results in Alabama, Virginia and New Jersey — believe victory is actually attainable after years in the wilderness.

Next comes the difficult grassroots work of ensuring that the current blast-furnace political intensity — especially among women and people of color — is maintained throughout 2018.

On policy, Democrats should then just keep asking the single overarching question: Are you and your children better off than before Walker and his Republicans allies took total control?

Sure, maybe you’ve saved a few bucks on taxes, but not many, and what else has the GOP accomplished for you? Nothing of note.

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And consider all you’ve lost.

Republicans have systematically defunded and diminished public education in the state from kindergarten through the University of Wisconsin. How exactly does this GOP hating on teachers and professors serve your kids? How does that help prepare your children to compete in a global economy?

And the GOP has failed to maintain the state’s infrastructure, especially your roads and bridges, simply so it can adhere to a no-tax-increase orthodoxy to please ideologically extreme donors.

The GOP has also permitted donors to dictate most all environmental policy, exemplified recently by deregulating mining up north. Your air and water is dirtier, your wetlands less protected than before Walker. How does that help your family?

Oh, and Walker’s pledge to focus on jobs has been mostly about cutting taxes for donors rather than investing in job training or effective programs that provide startup capital.

Ask yourself, what has the GOP really done to move struggling working-class folks toward family-sustaining incomes? Not much. Walker’s brain trust must also think that, which helps explain his $3-billion Foxconn gamble on the backs of “hardworking” taxpayers.

While the GOP answers primarily to donors, Democrats are not similarly beholden. They are certainly not in the grip of labor unions, whose influence has been vastly diminished.

In 2018, there is opportunity for Wisconsin Democrats to play the adult in the room, able to make the state better again by moving beyond the politics of resentment, which has been Walker’s calling card.

What is needed is a cohesive and limited set of logical policy concepts that would brighten the future of all in Wisconsin, urban or rural, professional or working class, white or people of color.

The political winds might just be turning, replacing the politics of resentment with a politics of decency.

After Alabama, it’s easier to imagine.

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