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.
Thom Yorke of Radiohead once sang “ambition makes you look pretty ugly.” This was certainly the case with Tom Barrett, who is now a three-time statewide gubernatorial loser. In 2010, Barrett ran a somnambulistic race and lost to Walker; this time, he decided to show his fangs. And in doing so, Barrett squandered the one thing he had going for him in past elections — his likeability.
Barrett hammered away at Walker on ephemeral issues such as the “war on women” and an investigation of Walker’s former county-executive staffers, and he stuck to outdated jobs data well past their expiration date. In the final debate, Barrett tried to play the race card, accusing Walker of being “afraid” of Milwaukee because of the number of people of color who live there. (Walker was so afraid of Milwaukee, he served as its county executive for eight years.)
In the end, Barrett ended up adopting as his own talking points much of the infantile dreck that bubbles around the fever swamps of the Internet, and voters sensed his desperation.
THE ENTHUSIASM GAP
Liberals will talk your ear off about how they are going to vote. Conservatives just go vote. And while union sympathizers were beating their chests about taking down Scott Walker, Republicans waited patiently to hit the polls and make their voices heard.
It didn’t help Barrett that he got lukewarm ratings from members of his own party. He was organized labor’s second choice. Government unions all initially lined up behind former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, but, as the old SNL joke goes, they quickly realized Falk couldn’t beat David Duke in Harlem. Barrett crushed Falk in the primary by more than 20 percent.
So labor was not necessarily thrilled with Barrett. After all, he used Walker’s reforms to balance his own budget, and he once wrote a letter to the state legislature urging them to include police and firefighters in Walker’s reforms (Walker exempted most public-safety officers from the collective-bargaining rollbacks).
Consequently, in one late pre-election poll, 92 percent of Republican respondents said they were definitely going to vote, but only 77 percent of Democrats said the same thing.
THE RARITY OF RECALLS
Throughout the recall process, labor organizers emphasized the “historic” nature of the recall election. Such language may have made organized labor feel as if this lent greater weight to its effort, but it also may have turned off more moderate Democrats who understand that voters should use the recall only in the most serious circumstances. One prominent Democratic pollster conceded that Barrett would need to be polling in the range of 55 percent to win, rather than the usual 50 percent, to account for all the lapsed, anti-recall Democrats who would not follow the party line. Barrett never won that level of support.
The recalls began with anger over Walker’s stance on collective bargaining, but Democrats quickly changed the subject when it became clear that collective bargaining wasn’t a winning issue with voters, who had begun to see the positive results of reform.
But the public is smart — people understood that the Democrats’ constantly shifting issues were essentially a poker tell. The unions were trying to fill an inside straight, it was clear, while Walker pulled a new ace with every school district that praised his reforms. When the Dems attempted last-minute personal smears, they showed everyone exactly how far behind they thought they were. And on that count, they were right.
Now, the question becomes: With Walker’s victory, have Democrats blown any chance of beating him in 2014? Anyone gutsy enough to take him on had better be willing to tussle with a national star whose political courage will be the new standard in American politics.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and writes the Yankee Review blog.