If you’ve watched an old silent movie, you’re familiar with how verbal ideas are conveyed; an actor mouths some words, and some text flashes on the screen to translate what they said. But in the early days of cinema, actors would often stray from the script, saying something very different than what was shown on the title screen — frequently, they could be seen sprinkling their speech with profanity. Savvy audiences began to pick up on this phenomenon, dubbing it “the cuss-word puzzle.”
One can play the same game with politicians; it’s no secret that they often say one thing and mean quite another. But for candidates such as former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, what she hasn’t said during her recall campaign against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has spoken volumes. If one reads between the lines, one can see that Falk knows her union-fueled campaign is over after today’s Democratic primary.
In today’s primary election, Democrats will pick which of their candidates will take Walker on in the June 5 recall election. (Walker faces an unserious GOP primary against a young man who dresses like Abraham Lincoln and who should probably be thankful gubernatorial candidates aren’t drug tested.)
Falk was the first of two major candidates to enter the race, boasting that she stood with the public-sector unions all last year in fighting Walker’s successful effort to scale back government-union collective bargaining. In closed-door meetings with organized labor, Falk promised she would veto any future budget that didn’t fully restore collective bargaining “rights”; quickly, the state’s major unions endorsed her and spent upwards of $5 million in television ads on her behalf.
#more#But for Falk, everything didn’t exactly go according to plan. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker’s unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial challenger, also entered the race. Public-sector unions urged Barrett not to run, accusing him of using Walker’s bill to balance his own city’s budget. At one point, Barrett suggested that Walker’s collective-bargaining rollback should apply to police and firefighters, which Walker’s bill exempted. Barrett’s early campaign fundraisers were picketed by union activists.
In the last weekend before today’s primary, the Democrat candidates took part in a debate, after which Falk dutifully traveled the state, talking up her own campaign. But the fact that she barely made mention of Barrett either in the debate or on the stump speaks volumes. During Friday night’s debate, while forcing herself to smile, she rambled on about how the state needed a “mom” in order to bring everyone together, but passed on any attempt to take a bite out of Barrett.
Falk has seen the same polls everyone else in the state has; in a recent survey conducted by Marquette University, she trails Barrett 38 percent to 21 percent. (In the same poll, Barrett and Walker are in a dead heat, while Walker leads Falk by a few percentage points.) In Milwaukee, the state’s largest media market, Falk trails Barrett by a whopping 70 percent to 20 percent. Clearly, Falk knows her campaign is done, and sees no need to harm Barrett in the general election. If she legitimately thought she had a chance to win today, she’d be filleting the front-runner in the closing hours. Instead, she has remained positive; perhaps in an effort to land a position in a hypothetical Barrett cabinet.
Barrett, however, isn’t necessarily repaying the favor. The Democratic party yesterday canceled a “unity rally” slated for Wednesday at the state capitol, in which all the candidates were supposed to hold hands and pledge to support the winner. Barrett pulled out of the rally, perhaps out of a hesitance to be seen celebrating with union leaders and activists. Whatever the case, Democrats seem to be a lot less “unified” than they would have voters believe. (A poster on the Daily Kos named “Giles the Goat Boy” makes his extreme displeasure known here.)
But should Falk go down to defeat today, as is almost universally expected, it signals a stunning rebuke for the public-sector unions. After all the sturm und drang of the past year, unions could be blown out in their own primary in an election for which they cut the check. Barrett has signaled that collective bargaining won’t be any part of his general-election campaign — instead he intends to run on Walker’s alleged “war on women” and school-aid cuts. For all the liberal talk of tea -party rallies being “astroturf,” it appears the tens of thousands of protesters that occupied the state capitol throughout 2011 didn’t translate into any more votes for union causes.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.