Feature

Walker’s decisive victory in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker easily survived a rare recall election.

What happenedWisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker easily survived a rare recall election this week, in a victory that deals a major blow to the labor union movement and may have implications for President Obama’s re-election hopes in November. Walker’s victory brought to an end 17 months of acrimonious debate in Wisconsin, sparked by the governor’s decision to curtail collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions and force government workers to contribute part of their salaries to their pensions and health-care benefits. Outraged protesters occupied the Wisconsin Capitol in February 2011, and went on to collect nearly 1 million signatures to trigger this week’s recall election, which pitted Walker against Democratic challenger Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee. But Walker’s campaign spent $45.6 million on the contest, almost two thirds of which came from out-of-state donors, while Barrett spent only $17.9 million. In the end, Walker won by a healthy 53–46 margin, making him the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election.

The decisive nature of Walker’s victory led to speculation that it might shake up the presidential race. President Obama won Wisconsin by a 14-point margin in 2008, but even some Democrats conceded that after the recall battle, the state was likely to be in play in November. “We’re going to remain a very competitive state heading into the fall,” said Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, who nonetheless predicted a victory for Obama.

What the editorials said Let this be a lesson to Big Labor, said The Wall Street Journal. Your “monopoly claim on taxpayer wallets” is at an end. Voters have overwhelmingly endorsed Walker’s attempt to rein in the public unions’ ability to extort unaffordable salaries and benefits from the state. Perhaps that’s because they can see it’s worked—the state has already saved over $1 billion by renegotiating labor and health-care contracts, and property taxes have fallen. Other political leaders should take note. “An aroused electorate can defeat a furious and well-fed special interest.”

Wisconsin’s public sector arguably needed reforming, said USA Today, but Walker did not help himself by doing it in a way that “wasn’t even-handed.” He cut Democratic programs such as Medicaid and education, while sparing Republican priorities—so while teachers saw their collective-bargaining rights eliminated, for example, police officers did not. The result? A costly, wasteful election that did nothing but stoke “bitterness and more partisanship.” Walker needs to learn that polarizing the electorate is no way to govern.

What the columnists saidThis wasn’t Walker’s victory, said Joan Walsh in Salon.com, but a victory for the “GOP’s plutocrat donor base,” which flooded the governor’s campaign with more than enough cash to “drive the final nail in labor’s coffin.” This brutal display of post–Citizens United politics should be a wake-up call for Democrats, said Greg Sargent in WashingtonPost.com. The GOP showed it can levy its huge financial advantage to “weaken the opposition in a structural way,” burying the Left’s grassroots operation beneath an avalanche of negative advertising. Obama should be worried.

I don’t think so, said Alec MacGillis in TheNewRepublic.com. Walker’s victory is more likely to do with voters’ desire to “stick with the guy in charge” than with ideology, or the presidential campaign. In fact, when viewed as evidence of “grudging pro-incumbent sentiment,” Walker’s victory might even bode well for Obama. Are you kidding? said Jonathan S. Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com. This was a “clear ideological battle,” in which conservatism prevailed. Anyone who thinks Walker’s win doesn’t portend more Democratic defeats in November “just isn’t paying attention.”

The recall vote may not prove to be a bellwether for the general election, said Ross Douthat in NYTimes.com, but it’s not “anything like good news for liberalism.” Just as Obama used his mandate to push through health-care reform, so Walker used his mandate to enact public-sector reforms. Where one spawned the Tea Party, the other gave birth to a recall election. But while the Tea Party helped punish Democrats at the polls in 2010, labor unions and liberal activists failed to punish Walker’s union-busting. The message to lawmakers: “It’s safer to take on left-wing interest groups than conservative ones” and “safer to cut government than to increase revenue.” In the battle for the future direction of our country, conservatism just took the lead.

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