He died more than nine years ago, but the spirit of the late U.S. Senator William Proxmire lives on in Wisconsin. The proof can be found in the latest Marquette Law School Poll, which suggests that someone like Proxmire, a political maverick if there ever was one, might play well in Wisconsin today. More on that in a moment, but first a couple of thoughts on what this latest survey tells us.
Today’s Marquette Law School Poll tends to complicate the national narrative about Wisconsin: that we’re a hyper-polarized state with voters split almost equally between Republican red and Democratic blue. While voting patterns certainly seem to support that claim, the poll results point to an electorate with a considerably more nuanced view of the world, replete with mixed messages that are sure to cause a lot of head-scratching among political pundits. Case in point: the poll finds that 54 percent of voters feel the state is moving in the right direction, which for the last three-and-a-half years, has been a distinctly conservative one. But on a number of key issues, Wisconsin voters agree with positions favored by Democrats. They support a hike in the minimum wage and accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid. They don’t like outsourcing. They think tax cuts favor the wealthy. They want to know more about whose deep pockets are funding political campaigns. Past polls have also shown majority support for repealing the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
So what’s going on here? After kicking this around for a couple of days, I think there’s a case to be made that Wisconsin is simply being Wisconsin. There has long been a strain of economic populism in the state, which is reflected in the new poll. But voters also want our fiscal house in order, and 45 percent of those surveyed say the state’s budget situation has improved from four years ago. Only 22 per cent say the budget is in worse shape. The latest findings present each major political party with a challenge. For Republicans, it’s to demonstrate that their party not only “gets” but cares about regular folks. For Democrats, it’s to convince voters that they’re capable of fiscal restraint and can be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Which brings us back to Bill Proxmire. Proxmire served 32 years in the U.S. Senate. He was a Democrat, a liberal on many issues, although not all (he favored restrictions on abortion). He fought for legislation protecting consumers. But he also crusaded against wasteful government spending. His “Golden Fleece” awards were legendary, if sometimes controversial. And he demonstrated his disdain for big-money politics by running many of his re-election campaigns for no more than $200.
It might be argued that Proxmire, who was elected in 1957 and retired in 1989, couldn’t exist in today’s political environment. His willingness to buck his own party, along with his penny-pinching ways, would not likely play well in some Democratic circles. His aversion to fundraising would put him at a distinct disadvantage against a candidate with big money and well-crafted attack ads. But on the issues, Proxmire “then” seems to be where many Wisconsin voters are today. It’s certainly not hard to find no-compromise party purists in Wisconsin, especially in the southeastern part of the state. But this latest Marquette Law School Poll reveals that if you peel away the party ID labels, Wisconsin’s independent streak remains very much intact. Somewhere, Bill Proxmire is smiling.