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Robin Vos is intellectually lonesome

Politico captures a perfectly ghoulish portrait of the Assembly Speaker’s political vanity.

Politico captures a perfectly ghoulish portrait of the Assembly Speaker’s political vanity.

Illustration: A meme image of a man sitting on a chair made of his own brain and smoking a pipe is inserted behind the podium of the Assembly chamber in the Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo of Wisconsin Assembly chamber by Richard Hurd on Flickr.

The story Politico published this week about Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is incredibly useful to anyone outside Wisconsin who wants to really understand the broader significance of what has happened here politically over the past decade and what it means for the rest of the country. For those of us reading it from within Wisconsin, it’s a bit strange and ghoulish and just confirms what we already know, which is that the Speaker is a preening freak who would happily watch the world crack in half if it made him feel powerful. 

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Under the headline “How Wisconsin is ruled by a shadow governor,” reporter Daniel C. Vock charts Vos’ influence on Wisconsin politics and details how the Speaker has used entrenched Republican power to block Democratic Governor Tony Evers from doing all that much governing. While it’s not really a critical piece, it is an accurate appraisal of how Vos approaches politics, and the framing is spot on. “Shadow governor” captures exactly what Vos and his fellow Republican legislators have been working to build—their own executive branch, not elected in statewide votes but instead controlled by a few legislators with seats on key legislative committees. Politico also takes care to provide the all-important context of gerrymandering and the 2018 lame-duck laws the Legislature passed to cut down the power of the actual executive branch after Evers beat out Scott Walker. 

In the story, Vos talks about his maneuvers with a hilarious level of dishonesty that is just so clearly meant to taunt people. He claims that he would have supported the lame-duck laws even if Walker had won in 2018. He declares that the Wisconsin Legislature, which pretty much only bothers with bills that Republicans are likely to pass on party-line votes, is “the most representative body in the country.” He is at once a petty tyrant and a third-grader riding high on a successful book report. Evers comes off as largely resigned to the fact that he can’t make Vos budge on anything. And if Vos spent much time talking with Vock about the actual problems facing the state, it didn’t make it into this piece. Instead, we get simply astonishing passages like this:

Vos, the longest-serving speaker in Wisconsin history, blames the governor for their antagonistic relationship, but he is especially irked by Evers’ decision not to meet regularly with legislative leaders. Vos and Evers often go months without talking face-to-face.

“I am somewhat jealous of my colleagues around the country when they have a relationship with a governor who at least is smart on policy or is passionate about X, Y or Z,” Vos said in an interview over the summer.

Sitting at a table at one of his favorite restaurants, munching on a lunch of burgers and cheese curds, the legislative leader relished the chance to explain how he has outmaneuvered his opponents — particularly the governor. He said he wished he had a better adversary in the governor’s office, someone with the inclination to take him on.

“Our governor,” he said as he folded his hands in front of him, “has no passion and no policy chops on the vast majority of issues. So it’s very hard to have an intellectual conversation and get into the topic to say, how do we fix that problem with [someone] who doesn’t necessarily think of that as their job.”

And later:

He groused about the news of the day, an announcement about Evers’ plan to give federal money to 10 groups to improve workforce development (“How innovative is that?” Vos asked. “That’s not even lazy. That’s sad.”) He wondered why Evers hasn’t tried to govern from the center, like Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has with the solidly Democratic legislature in Massachusetts. (“It would have frustrated me, because it would have made [Evers] more effective. It would have made him harder to target,” Vos said.)

Vos has cynically leveraged the pandemic for his own political gain while Wisconsinites suffered, lost their incomes, and died. He has blocked a wide range of constructive if imperfect legislative proposals from even coming to a vote or a floor debate, from cannabis legalization to Medicaid expansion to police reform. He has formed his own squad of sham election investigators, who it turns out don’t know how to send emails. There’s an extra layer of horror in realizing he does all this, in part, because he is simply dissatisfied with the political dance around it all. We’re caught in an overwrought movie about a too-clever serial killer who might let you live if you play his wacky sadistic games.

This story is a vindication of the sort of journalism that Politico often does. It tends to focus on the mechanics and sport of the thing, placing the powerful and their actions in a realm that is offset from morality and real-world consequences. It can be a bit grating, but it allows us to see politicians as they see themselves. 

The Speaker fits into this framework with frictionless ease. This is a man so hated that people send him dogshit in the mail. Someone who looked at a deadly pandemic and all the other problems facing the state, but never seemed to lose focus on the arrogant hoarding and exercise of power. Amid all of this, he mostly just seems to lament the fact that he doesn’t have a good intellectual sparring partner. 

Pieces like this are important because they help to remind us of what we have been through in Wisconsin: a devastating assault on the already flawed mechanisms of representative government. It is easy to simply brush all of this off as just day-to-day political dysfunction and infighting. In fact, we are meant to. That is a feature built into the Republican Party’s drive toward one-party rule. Let this story serve as a warning to the rest of the country: the smirking face of Robin Vos is your future.


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