Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. Stay warm out there!
Gov. Tony Evers took to the Assembly chamber last week to give his first State of the State speech. Evers had a difficult challenge ahead of him. Thanks to his predecessor and the legislative majorities who were just re-elected, the state is in historically good shape, but Evers had to redefine success in order to justify his radical agenda. As we enter an era of divided government in Wisconsin, Evers’ speech was infused with rigid liberal dogma delivered in a confrontational tone. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the speech, however, is how he blundered his way into a completely avoidable controversy.
One of Evers’ campaign promises was that he would withdraw Wisconsin from an ongoing lawsuit regarding Obamacare. That suit is suing to invalidate Obamacare on the grounds that the individual mandate is unconstitutional (it is) and has made good progress in the lower courts. Since several states are involved in the suit, Wisconsin’s withdrawal will not have a measurable effect on the outcome of the case, but withdrawing would be a symbolic gesture to Evers’ radical liberal base.
Knowing that Evers intended to fulfill this promise, the Legislature passed a law in December that requires the governor to gain legislative approval before withdrawing the state from ongoing legal actions. It was a way for the Legislature to add a check to what was a unilateral power of the executive branch.
Governor Evers knew all of this when he declared in his State of the State speech, with great fanfare from the liberals in the room, that “I’m announcing tonight that I have fulfilled a promise I made to the people of Wisconsin by directing Attorney General Kaul to withdraw from a lawsuit … .”
While it made for a great applause line for liberals, Evers was declaring that he had instructed Kaul to withdraw from the Obamacare lawsuit. It is important to note that Evers used the past tense, meaning that he had already issued the instruction to the attorney general. Evers announced this in a statewide, televised speech even though he knew that it was no longer legal for him to unilaterally withdraw from the lawsuit.
Quickly after the speech, Republicans pointed out the error in Evers’ declaration and the attorneys from
the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau reiterated the meaning of the clear language of the law that Evers could not order the attorney general to withdraw from the Obamacare lawsuit.
Within days of Evers’ speech, he had to walk back the order to comply with the law and Attorney General Kaul has dutifully requested that the Legislature approve withdrawing from the lawsuit. The odds are that such approval will not be forthcoming.
Evers’ reaction is quite telling. In a statement to the Wisconsin State Journal, Evers claimed that he understood that the action would require legislative approval and said, “So in my worldview — and I know that’s not everyone’s worldview — there’s nothing inconsistent with what I said and what’s actually going to happen.”
Evers is trying to create an alternate reality where he was in the right. The problem with that is he did not say it in an off-the-cuff remark. He made a formal declaration in his State of the State address. Presumably, such a formal speech had been vetted, reworked, and fact-checked by his staff and himself multiple times before it was delivered. He is an educator by profession and had ample time to write the statement in a way that people could understand his meaning without having to divine Evers’ worldview.
There can only be two rational explanations for Evers’ blunder, and refusal to own up to it. Either Evers is simply a liberal activist who will run roughshod over the law in pursuit of his agenda unless he is checked, or he lacks the competence necessary to write a coherent speech — much less run a state.
Either way, for those of us who were hoping, despite our political differences, for honesty and competence in the Evers governorship, this early bungle does not bode well for the next four years.