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Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010

In Praise of Flip-Flopping

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Politicians sometimes paint themselves into corners where they have to choose between doing something stupid or committing the dreaded political sin of flip-flopping.

That is the absurd position Gov.-elect Scott Walker has put himself in on the issue of building high-speed rail in Wisconsin.

For some reason, during his campaign Walker made a major issue of opposing a federal windfall of $810 million to construct a high-speed train between Milwaukee and Madison that would create nearly 15,000 jobs over the next two years, when jobs are desperately needed.

Walker has been elected governor apparently because voters were angry Democrats had not created jobs fast enough. But if Walker continues to oppose high-speed rail, he will be killing thousands of jobs, losing $810 million in economic development and forcing taxpayers to repay $100 million already spent on the project.

But what’s a politician to do? The absolute worst act any politician can commit is to be a flip-flopper.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. In politics, as in life, the stupidest people we know are those who stubbornly cling to preconceived ideas, facts and circumstances be damned.

People who are willing to alter their views as a result of acquiring information are called educable. That’s a valuable quality in political leadership. It’s the way we advanced beyond believing the sun was Zeus’ basketball.

It was the Republican attacks on Sen. John Kerry when he was running for president in 2004 that raised the level of contempt for so-called flip-flopping to merciless.

Republicans combed through Kerry’s long voting record in the U.S. Senate to try to make it appear he had voted on both sides of every issue. That was a total distortion. The real reason Republicans opposed Kerry was because he was a consistently liberal Massachusetts Democrat.

Changing one’s mind in politics is now considered a sign of weakness. Never mind the heartbreaking cost in American lives and treasure as a result of politicians pigheadedly sticking with mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq.

Jobs, Development in Limbo

No one may die as a result of Wisconsin opting out of a national network of high-speed rail connecting major cities, but a lot of hurting, jobless people will have to wait even longer to get back to work.

That’s why many people around the state—including Republicans—are asking if Walker can possibly be serious about turning down $810 million in jobs and economic development for the state.

Ron Krueger, the Republican mayor of Watertown, estimates his community’s tax base would increase by $20 million to $25 million as a result of development around the planned station in Watertown between Milwaukee and Madison.

Republican and Democratic business leaders in Madison have been eagerly anticipating business expansion that would result from having a high-speed connection with Chicago.

People outstate may be baffled by Walker’s hostility toward mass transportation. That’s because they haven’t listened to right-wing talk radio in Milwaukee—one of Walker’s guiding forces—that for years has viciously pilloried mass transit as some kind of liberal scheme to spend tax money to benefit poor people.

That has nothing to do with high-speed passenger rail that in other parts of the country serves business-class Republicans.

Walker discounts the thousands of jobs that would be created to build high-speed rail in Wisconsin, saying only 55 permanent jobs would be required to operate the train itself.

News flash! Construction jobs are never permanent. Construction jobs are created to build something. When it gets built, those jobs end.

It’s particularly cruel for Walker to chase away the jobs recently created by Talgo, the Spanish train car construction company.

It’s the most promising new manufacturing industry to open in Milwaukee’s black community in decades, with tremendous potential for expansion along with the nation’s high-speed rail infrastructure.

And, as Milwaukee’s county executive, why would Walker turn down a high-speed train connection to deliver a growing number of Chicago passengers directly to Mitchell Airport?

Walker’s cover story during the election was that he objected to the state having to pay $7.5 million a year in operating costs for the train.

That actually gave him a perfect out since the state was never going to have to pay that much. A federal agreement already pays 90% of the cost of operating the train between Chicago and Milwaukee.

If the same formula is used to operate the train between Milwaukee and Madison, the cost to the state would be only $750,000 a year. The $100 million Wisconsin taxpayers would have to spend to NOT have high-speed rail would pay the state’s annual operating costs for more than 130 years.

So let Walker pretend he negotiated a tough compromise with the federal government to reduce the state’s costs. Then, we could have high-speed rail, jobs and economic development.

That’s not flip-flopping. It’s intelligent politics.

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