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Tom Still: State offers more than brats and curds

MADISON — It’s no secret that Wisconsin is a secret when it comes to most things other than cheese, farms and the Green Bay Packers.

That branding dilemma was confirmed for me two years ago when my organization worked on a “Wisconsin Perception Survey” that asked about 2,000 people what they thought of the state and its job opportunities.

The answer was basically the same for respondents inside and outside the state: Job diversity means choosing between careers in curds, colby or cheddar.

While the reality of job options in Wisconsin is far different than what so many people think, decades of perception are hard to change. Fortunately, a timely chance to color Wisconsin’s monochromatic branding slate has arrived.

The combination of a looming worker deficit and the impending arrival of high-tech manufacturers such as Foxconn Technology Group has created a moment in which Wisconsin must finally get serious about attracting more people and selling itself as a well-rounded place to live, work and play.

That was the idea behind Gov. Scott Walker’s announcement of a $6.8 million marketing and advertising campaign aimed at Midwest millennials, returning military veterans and alumni of the state’s public and private colleges. Walker did so Nov. 29 at the “Future Wisconsin Summit,” produced by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, where the Wisconsin Perception Survey was unveiled two years ago.

Pending legislative approval, the campaign would promote the state’s industry mix, recreation, education, arts and health care, and:

  • Reach out to millennials in Chicago and nearby on the theory they’re reaching an age in which starting a family and leading a more balanced life is better than living in a tiny apartment and fighting rush-hour traffic. For example, multi-media ads would pose illustrated choices such as “An hour in traffic … or an hour with friends?”, “One hour commute … or one-hour bike ride?” and “Shoebox on the third floor … or loft in the Third Ward?”
  • Entice military veterans who are returning from deployments and transitioning into civilian life. Whether they’re from Wisconsin or elsewhere, those veterans often seek the same things: housing, jobs, benefits and a place to raise a family. Wisconsin offers a state property tax credit for veterans who own homes; jobs that align with technical training received in the military; and some of the most comprehensive veteran benefits in the United States. Rockwell Automation and Manpower are already gearing up to train more veterans for specific tech jobs, as I noted in a recent column.
  • Welcome back alums. Wisconsin graduates about 75,000 students per year from its public and private colleges and universities, but loses many to other states. Some don’t know about job openings and choices … others just want to return home. There are many others, however, who left for jobs from coast to coast and who could be tempted to return for the right opportunity.

One of the best elements of the plan is that it’s targeted to specific groups that can be reasonably reached. Lawmakers who might question the price tag should consider how costly it is to reach people in a world where mediums are diffused and audiences are fragmented.

A point yet to be addressed is how to overcome a belief, which surfaced in the 2015 perception survey, that Wisconsin isn’t very tolerant. Part of persuading people to relocate is assuring them they won’t become strangers in a new land.

Skeptics will note Wisconsin has flirted with marketing efforts in the past, only to get it wrong or to fail to spend what it takes. Perhaps history will repeat itself — or maybe this time the state will recognize it must cut a big block of cheese if it hopes to attract and retain tomorrow’s workers.

Michael Gerson: Where's the compassionate conservatism?

WASHINGTON — Some political moments are like an X-ray — revealing down to the bone.

Here were Senate Republicans, poised for their first (and only) real legislative victory of the year. Tax overhaul, they knew, would be their main shot at shaping public perceptions of the GOP in the Trump era. The bill they were in the process of passing was utterly typical of Republican economic thinking — large tax reductions for corporations, broad income-tax relief for individuals and an increase in the child tax credit (deductible against income taxes). None of this surprising in the least.

Which was a problem. Insofar as blue-collar voters in places such as Pennsylvania and Ohio delivered unified Republican government, you would think their economic needs and struggles might find some central, or at least symbolic, place in the Republican agenda. So when Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., proposed an amendment to make the child credit fully deductible against payroll taxes (which are the taxes actually paid by the working poor), it was clearly good policy and good politics.

The measure ended up getting only 20 Republican votes and was defeated 71-29.

How is this for symbolism: In their tax bill, Senate Republicans gave a break to private jet owners, but refused to increase the corporate rate by 0.94 percentage points to cover the cost of helping an estimated 12 million working-class families. The 20 percent corporate rate, Rubio and Lee were told, was sacrosanct, nonnegotiable — until the day after the vote, when President Trump conceded it may need to rise anyway. What drives many elected Republicans to embody every destructive, plutocratic stereotype? Do they really need to wear spats and a top hat every time they appear in public?

A good case can be made for reducing the corporate tax rate below the 24 percent global average, making America a more competitive place to do business. And it is true that, in a progressive tax system, broad tax cuts will go disproportionately to people who pay a lot of taxes in the first place. But Senate Republicans were presented with a clear and conservative way to both seem and be more favorable to working-class families. And they rejected it decisively.

It was foolish of Senate Republican leaders not to see the obvious political benefit of this change to a bill that is currently unpopular. It was offensive that most Senate Democrats voted against the amendment, on the crassly partisan theory that nothing they oppose should be improved. It is even a bit disappointing that Lee and Rubio did not threaten to blow up the tax bill — any two Republican senators plus Bob Corker, R-Tenn., an announced “no,” could have done so — in order to get their amendment included.

It is true enough that many liberals would only be happy with tax-code changes that are frankly redistributionist — designed to decrease inequality, even if overall economic growth were undermined. They think of the tax code as one way of addressing a structural injustice — the injustice of modern capitalism, which favors wealth over wages.

In contrast, compassionate conservatives (the few of us who remain) view healthy, sustained economic growth as a moral achievement — justly rewarding effort and enterprise and allowing society to be more generous to those in genuine need. (What poor and stagnant nation would undertake Medicaid or the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief?) But this is different than saying that economic freedom is always identical to the common good. Particularly in an increasingly high-skill economy, it requires positive effort to (1) train as many people as possible for economic participation, (2) ensure that lower skill work can still result in a dignified life (through measures such as the earned income tax credit), (3) encourage the stability of families (through, for example, the child credit) and (4) increase the scale of private and religious efforts to meet society’s desperate human needs (addiction, homelessness, etc.).

The goal of a compassionate conservatism is not economic leveling but social solidarity — an economic system that allows everyone to live lives of dignity. On the best historical and economic evidence, this is achieved through a mixed economy — allowing the freedom to create wealth, but depending on government and civil society to humanize an imperfect human system (as all human systems are imperfect).

The balance here is not always easy to determine. But most elected Republicans don’t seem moved or motivated by either equality or solidarity — at least if the damning defeat of Lee-Rubio is any indication.

Carl P. Leubsdorf: 4 questions Mueller must answer

President Donald Trump’s reaction to former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s plea bargain has focused public attention once more on the issue at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation: potential presidential obstruction of justice.

This is nothing new. Since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last May and cited the Russia probe, it has been evident that the president’s actions were creating a strong case for Mueller to conclude he had tried to obstruct the investigation.

But Mueller must ultimately resolve four questions to determine the extent of what may be the worst presidential misuse of power since Richard Nixon asked the FBI and CIA to cover up the Watergate break-in.

These are the four questions:

  • How far did Trump go to stop the probe of potential Russian involvement with his 2016 campaign?

He began at the outset of his presidency. On Jan. 27, Comey testified under oath, the president invited him for dinner and told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” a pointed statement Trump later denied. A day earlier, acting Attorney General Sally Yates advised the White House that Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence and others (presumably including the FBI) about his contacts with the Russians, though Comey never said Trump explicitly mentioned that.

On Feb. 13, some 18 days after Yates’ warning, Trump fired Flynn — after The Washington Post reported he had lied to Pence. But after Flynn pleaded guilty last week to lying to the FBI, Trump tweeted, “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.”

Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, claimed he wrote the tweet. But it was in the president’s name, an apparent acknowledgement he knew Flynn lied before his dinner with Comey and did nothing until it became public two weeks later.

Comey said Trump told him a day after Flynn was fired: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy.” Comey said he replied only that “he is a good guy.”

On May 10, Trump fired Comey, blaming his handling of the 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. Two days later, Trump cited “this Russian thing” as a factor to NBC’s Lester Holt, though he added he always knew, “I was going to fire Comey.”

  • What was Trump’s motive?

Despite repeated denials by Trump and top campaign officials, a number have now acknowledged surreptitious contacts during and after the campaign with Russian officials. The alleged subjects ranged from adoption of Russian babies to the Obama administration’s tightening of anti-Russian sanctions.

It’s unclear they intended these false statements to obscure potentially politically damaging contacts or something more sinister, perhaps stemming from Trump’s commercial interests and a long relationship with Russians funding them or, even more seriously, collusion with an active Russian effort to help him win the election.

The latest clue: In December, Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, wrote in an email obtained by The New York Times that the Obama administration’s strengthened sanctions could make it harder for Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him.”

  • Who shares Flynn’s guilt?

Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI. But others risk exposure for perjury. So far, at least a dozen people have made misleading statements, either to Congress, in government documents or to the public, including Trump, Pence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, presidential assistant and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. It’s too early to know if any will face legal charges.

  • What will be done about it?

That’s the ultimate question for Trump’s presidency.

Dowd told Axios the “president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under (the Constitution’s Article II) and has every right to express his view of any case.” But presidential criminal liability remains a legal gray area. The one known prosecution venue is the constitutional provision calling for removal of the president “on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Congress invoked that clause in impeaching Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, neither of whom was convicted, and in forcing Nixon’s resignation to avoid almost certain impeachment and conviction.

“What we’re beginning to see is the putting together of a case of obstruction of justice,” Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. If that’s Mueller’s conclusion, he could recommend Congress consider impeachment. After that, the outlook becomes murkier, given that pro-Trump Republicans run both House and Senate — at least until the 2018 election.

Still, it’s increasingly evident potential obstruction of justice is a principal focus of Mueller’s investigation. But not necessarily the only one.