The airwaves, cyberspace and print media are filled today with interpretations of the failed effort to recall the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, in Tuesday’s voting. A lot is being written and some of it is true. Let’s boil it down to its essence.
First, the Democrats and labor overstepped by insisting on a recall. In a sense, labor had already won a victory by helping to create outrage across the state and nation over what Walker had done in trying to take away the negotiating rights of most public service employee unions. Having dominated the news for weeks on end, a huge effort was mounted to restage the election of 2010. This was essentially a mistake. Evidently, a lot of voters resented being asked to make the same choice, between the same two candidates, that they had made less than two years ago.
The Democrats, after a battle in their own primary, wound up running the same candidate Walker had beaten in 2010 against him in 2012. For thousands of voters, this was too much. They weren’t just being asked to kick out a governor who had made himself public enemy number one of unions and Democrats, but they were asked to reverse their own decision to elect Scott Walker in the first place. Many believed that Scott was a poor politician and perhaps a poor governor, but few thought he was guilty of malfeasance in office by taking on the unions and winning.
It has been reported that the national Democrats wanted to hold off on the recall and put all of their efforts into defeating Walker in 2014. Instead, the local Democrats and the unions went for the kill this year. Now, they have created a kind of right wing martyr in Walker, a guy who has withstood the hardest, harshest fire the unions could throw at him. Had they waited, they could have confronted Walker’s actions in the normal course of elective politics. Many voters in Wisconsin have expressed resentment that they were being asked to vote again on Walker, having just elected him less than two years ago.
A lot of commentators are writing that all of this represents something really bad for the Democrats and unions. What it really indicates is that they failed in this particular case, having made a number of strategic mistakes along the way. In the middle of a tough recession, many voters were apparently willing to go along with the idea that public unions were too strong and getting pay that was too high with benefits not available to the general public. Resentment be the key word: don’t give people an easy target when unemployment is high, pay is stagnant and no one knows when jobs are coming back for the average worker. It also indicates the ability of Republicans and business interests to outspend unions and the Democrats by massive amounts when it appears that a lot is on the line. The message: be careful of the fights you choose.
Recall is an unusual measure for our democracy. If the states had a parliamentary system, governors could be voted on in a day’s time once they lost support. We have a more settled system that gives voters a chance to speak once every four years in most states. Only four governors have ever been recalled in America and only two successfully. In the most recent other case, California, voters chose a recall and then an election was held. In other words, the governor was removed from office first, then candidates ran to take over. That might have worked, too, in Wisconsin, but that is not the way the state’s system was set up.
All in all, while Walker was smiling and hugging with his victory last night, he would not likely have chosen to go through the whole thing if he’d had the choice. He might windup stronger as a result or he might simply be marked as a ham handed politician who got almost half of the state to be against him. Is this a victory or just another stage of controversy and division, in other words? Bill Clinton was hardly made into a stronger president by being impeached, but it hasn’t hurt his retirement career one bit.
Some people think that other governors will now try to “break the backs” of public employee unions. Don’t bet on it. These battles will still exist, but they are unlikely to follow the Walker model. There are, indeed, examples of state employees getting really good pay and strong benefits that might, ultimately, be unaffordable, but, if so, they are likely to be taken on as a case-by-case situation. Walker tried to do it all at once, leveraging the recession and its resentment to get what Republicans have wanted for decades.
Wisconsin does prove, however, that unions and the Democratic party can lose some of their cherished gains of the last 50 to 60 years. It proves that, even with a groundswell of public outrage against a governor or other public official, there is no assurance of victory. That should be a rather sobering message for the Democrats as we head into this year’s presidential voting.
This commentary, please keep in mind, is a “day after” look at what happened. The TerryReport will be back should other information about these results surface in the coming days.
Doug Terry, 6.6.12