The weekend before last, Wisconsin Democrats gathered in Milwaukee for their annual convention. While I didn’t attend, I can gather that it was the usual convention fare, not entirely dissimilar to the state GOP’s annual convention: celebrate the wins, lament the losses, speeches from the high-profile elected officials, and some swag-heavy parties following the speeches.

It’s always the speeches from the convention that get any media coverage, and this year’s speeches were no different. But understand this: the speeches are not grand policy statements nor proposals, ethey are meant to rally the base. And the members of the base are the ones who are most energized: the volunteers who pay to spend money to go to Milwaukee, stay overnight, eat rubber chicken, and then turn out en masse to go door to door at election time.

Therefore, the speeches are light on policy, heavy on righteousness, and riddled with jokes that only partisans find funny. We’re not talking about Jim Gaffigan here.

Enter Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. Yes, that Mandela Barnes.

Barnes is outspoken to be sure, trading barbs across the Twittertubes with his critics, particularly GOP legislators. He’s also an unabashed advocate for legalized cannabis use.

So it was during his speech to Wisconsin Democrats, he said, “[t]hink about how much more enjoyable your Thanksgiving dinner would be[,]” if marijuana was legalized.

In conversations since, I have heard several rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives say that it was an offensive joke because it trivializes drug use. They argued that against the backdrop of how drug use is ravaging every corner of the state. Regardless of whether a Republican or Democrat represents a community, the topic deserves a somber discussion. 

The sensitivity to drug abuse and to the attendant destruction of our communities is more than understandable and I am thankful for the leadership many legislators have provided – in particular, Representative John Nygren (R-Marinette). 

So, with Barnes’ remarks, I seeme to be witnessing a genuine “Republicans pounce” moment.

I, too, am pouncing. He needs to stop using that joke if it’s in regular rotation. It’s a dumb joke.

The joke’s delivery was in poor form, beneath the lieutenant governor,e and its intent was juvenile.

Yet I do think it’s a good inflection point, and I think the pouncing and offense that some conservatives took was disproportionate. It’s time Republicans and conservatives have a conversation among themselves and in their communities, not just about cannabis policy, but also about alcohol, drunk driving and criminal justice reform.

And if Barnes’ dumb joke is the impetus for those conversations, I’m certain that’s a good thing.

To declare that a genuine policy debate is verboten because we have sensitivities that may or may not be related to the topic of said debate is not a good approach to public policy.

It cheapens discourse and it has become too prevalent on the Left as a tool to stifle debate. They are quick to declare topics off-limits from discourse; the modern social justice warriors (or Jacobins, as a friend of mine has begun to call them) shout down speakers on college campuses, feign angst from the sight of red baseball hats, or declare that anyone who lacks experiential history is incapable of appreciating or policymaking in the interest of the self-identified.

Questions of public policy should mean having uncomfortable conversations.

It’s all-too-easy for elected officials to bog down in details of policy. And in the marketplace of partisanship, where overwrought rhetoric and hyperbole is currency, nearly six million Wisconsinites are affected when tough or uncomfortable conversations don’t happen.

Quick Hit:

Republicans on the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved a measure late last week that would allow for the state to impose new and increased fees on motorists by simple majority vote of the legislature’s budget writing committee. The proposal would bypass the other 83 legislators thereby rendering their voice mute.

Perhaps if Wisconsin Republicans insist on moving forward with this policy, at least they could have the courtesy to offer us a new license plate:

Cameron Sholty, a weekly contributor to RightWisconsin, is a principle at Bell Public Affairs, LLC and has served in both public and private capacities as a communications and public policy advisor. He was Chief of Staff to the former Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader and Communications Director in the State Senate.