Scott Walker, a grin for the ages.
So Scott Walker wins the Wisconsin recall with an eight-point margin. What is the takeaway from that? I have heard some surprising spin spun in the 24 hours since Walker claimed victory saying, “Tomorrow we are one as Wisconsinites.” I have heard that it’s the Democrats’ own fault for mounting a distracting primary. I have heard that it’s the Democrats own fault because obscene spending differentials don’t matter.
I have heard more plausible explanations such as that independents began to show signs of recall backlash late in the campaign, feeling recalls should be reserved for criminal malfeasance. Certainly, it was a combination of factors, but I look to two primary factors. First, Obscene spending differentials do matter. Walker outspent Tom Barrett by a factor of seven or eight to one. Walker’s war chest was $31 million and this amount was magnified by the outside groups funded by the like of the Koch Brothers who spent big on his behalf. The total spent on the campaign was $63 million and it was all Walker all the way.
The second factor in his win was his message. Walker’s attacks on collective bargaining played into deep-seated, right-leaning populist resentments against public sector workers. Private sector employees who have no pensions looked across the alley and saw government workers who had it all—safe jobs and real live pensions. It could have gone another way, I suppose. Private sector workers could have looked to the fruits of collective bargaining as a worthwhile way to go in an era of diminishing expectations, but instead they appear ready to pull public workers down to their level.
I am talking specifically about poor to lower middle class conservatives here. There are more than anyone would guess inhabiting Wisconsin’s Tea Party belt, stretching from just outside Milwaukee straight north to Lake Superior, with small oases comprising Madison and its northwestern counties. It’s the land of layoffs, disability, and diminished second act careers in towns from Racine to Menomonie—and Walker’s message of disentitlement played better than anyone might have imagined. He actually increased his margin of victory over Barrett by two points since they first did electoral battle seventeen months ago.
Toxic populism runs deep when the money is running out—and it is running out in Wisconsin just as it is in Minnesota’s Chisago County, the subject of the recent New York Times article about Tea Partiers on government assistance. Walker is a demagogue, no question. The public unions had already dealt and were ready to deal all the more with Republican handwriting on the wall last year. Instead, he started a monumental race to the bottom. But his message resonates in ways that Democrats and progressives may have a hard time hearing.
Why Blame Democrats?
Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, that paragon of Midwest sensibilities, blamed the Democrats for much of the defeat. He blamed the party and the candidates for hosting a primary runoff between Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Never mind that primaries are supposed to sharpen the skills of participants. Cillizza mentioned rural and suburban Wisconsinites resentment against the “big city” Milwaukee and its candidate. Never mind that Falk represented the county that holds Madison, the mini-lotusland of the Big Cheese state. He somehow blames the Democrats for being unable to raise the obscene amounts of money thrown at the race by Citizens United-enabled ideological interests that would never dream of funding the other side.
It makes sense that there was a primary. Barrett was a viable candidate, but he wasn’t the unions’ guy. Falk was. But Barrett, who has tousled with public employee unions from time to time, was in the end a better candidate to woo swing voters precisely because of that history. And who can blame the unions for mounting a challenger of their own preference?
No, it wasn’t the Democrats. It was a destructive populist sentiment and Big Money that won. In the long run, Walker is a cipher, a walking virus. But his message will be contagious, I believe, as anti-public union activists across the county figure that with the “right” message and Big Money, they too, can win big. Walker said that Wisconsinites reaffirmed his commitment to “hard choices.” But taking something away the right to bargain for a pension from your local teacher, or social worker, is not one of the hard choices. It is easier to go after public employees that it is to figure out how to heal a broken economic system that refuses to generate jobs in any great numbers. Perhaps this is the preamble. Perhaps in a few seasons, we will go after the health care benefits of others, because “we” no longer have them. That could happen in a post-Affordable Care Act economy.
AFSME and other public employee unions in Wisconsin will be accused of a strategic blunder, of overestimating their power, and more importantly, the electoral muscle of the nearly percent of voters they counted on. But money, again, is the mother’s milk of politics. Unions will pay a price for this loss; that price may be paid in sagebrush actions flaring up around the county. It started today in Minnesota with a Republican state representative vowing to make Minnesota a “right to work” state. ALEC will certainly get in the game, as will every single one of the Citizens-spawned PACs of the right. Things do not bode well for the perks of public employment. Never mind the old tradeoff of a lower salary in exchange for greater equity, job security, and a pension. That was another decade; this is the new reality.
The raison d’être for public unions hasn’t changed one bit. They afford protection against public budgets being balanced on the backs of workers, while the employees work for what is, in many respects, a monopoly employer, the state government provider of much that gets done in the public sector. The presence of unions makes absolute sense in this political dynamic for reasons that become clear in the present moment, but in the end there are pitfalls to getting cozy with Democratic candidates. It makes Republicans hate your prerogatives and your power. And that leads to…well just like that satellite TV commercial, at the end of an unlikely chain of events you find yourself homeless, sleeping at a bus stop.
So while the divisive race is over, the division is just beginning, that this is an early chapter in a coming tear-down of much greater proportions. I believe that we are just two Republican terms from the extinction of all pension rights for anyone but law enforcement, firefighters and the military. You could hear that in Tea Party political consultant Jeff Roe’s (NPR) "All Things Considered" interview this evening. Just leave those three sacred cows out of it and you are home free. I hope I am wrong. I would love to be wrong. But I see the failed recall against Scott Walker as a harbinger of things to come. And only two things can stop it: the override of Citizens United and a real economic recovery. Barring that, resentful populism is digging in for the long haul, sponsored by smart ideologues exploiting a deep hurt and using “runaway spending” as a very broad cudgel.