In early March of 2011, Forbes columnist Rick Ungar called Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s plan to scale back public-sector collective-bargaining power “one of the great political miscalculations of our time.” Saying Walker had “lost the war,” Ungar correctly pointed out that Walker’s approval rating had plummeted, with 60 percent of Wisconsinites saying they disapproved of his job performance.
The state had descended into a Hobbesian state of nature; the protests delivered assaults, disruptions, profanity, and public rancor. Talk of a recall began to dog Walker. Starting early in 2011, the “solidarity singers” camped in the state-capitol rotunda singing songs such as “Scotty, We’re Coming for You.”
With Walker’s win tonight, it is worth going back to figure out how the governor pulled his political career out of the abyss over the past 15 months.
Walker was tireless in pointing out the gains the state made under his new framework. He took the unprecedented measure of releasing state jobs numbers early to show that Wisconsin was gaining jobs, not losing them as earlier federal reports had estimated.
Under Walker, property taxes fell, schools were able to avoid laying off massive numbers of teachers, the $3.6 billion budget deficit was eliminated without raising taxes, and the state even saw a $154 million budget surplus for the current budget cycle.
Walker’s press operation was energetic in disseminating press clippings that showed school districts were saving millions of dollars by not having to use the teachers’ union’s own health-insurance company. Walker calmly made the case that scaling back collective bargaining allowed government to work smarter with the money it had; for instance, school districts could now make hiring and firing decisions based on teacher merit, not simply tenure.
However, it took some time for these gains to take effect, which is why Walker was also aided by . . .
The length of time between introduction of Walker’s plan and the June 2012 recall election allowed him to demonstrate that his plan was working.
But the contentiousness of the ensuing months also wore on the public. Voters were bombarded with caustic political ads in November 2010, then during a state-supreme-court race in April 2011, then during state-senate recall elections in August 2011, then for Walker’s this month. Wisconsonites eventually realized that at some point, the state had to return to governability.
Although the union protests in early 2011 were a spectacular visual event, they ended up not making any difference in the final vote, other than perhaps to drive more Republicans to the polls. Labor leaders clearly thought that simply being on the news every night showed union strength; this calculation proved wrong.
At the time, labor sympathizers thought that every public employee holding a sign comparing Walker to Osama bin Laden was worth at least three votes at the polls; yet, in the end, the backlash against such puerility seems to have provoked the opposite effect.
The vice-chairman of the Republican party of Wisconsin, Brian Schimming, told me that no matter where he went in the state, he never heard anyone say, “We really need to throw Walker out of office.” While there were plenty of real people out there who disagreed with Walker’s plans and his method of passing them, few of them actually believed in recall as a legitimate tool for punishing him. In January, Democrats turned in 900,000 petition signatures to recall Walker, meaning that only about 20 percent of the state’s citizens signed a petition; many of them were the same people who voted against Walker in 2010.