In The News
Pundits run amuck explaining Walker win
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted June 14, 2012
Both sides of the partisan divide are proving absolutely lousy at interpreting the June 5 recall election that kept Scott Walker in the governor’s mansion (where he can pretend over beer and brats to sudden contrition for his behavior).
He flat-out won – but that was not first understood as an echo of what happened in 2010, masked as the prelude was by the extraordinary energy on the ground from the opposition. If kept alive as many are working to assure, such vitality and enthusiasm from new voters joining re-inspired traditional and union voters could change outcomes drastically in the upcoming legislative races and presidential campaign.
This surging power represents one of the first misreads by pundits analyzing the election – just because it wasn’t enough doesn’t mean it isn’t there. On the other hand, just because it is there didn’t mean it would be enough in an irregular summer election.
That was the sad truth Democrats couldn’t believe, but they are convinced the fall of 2012 could be quite different if they keep the fever alive and foster greater awareness. The message that this is just the first round rang out before the vote and immediately after from all sorts of unbowed foes of the Walker agenda, from citizens on the street to AFL-CIO leader Arlene Holt Baker speaking two days before and the day after the results. So if you also read the punditry that said the progressives were slinking away in disgrace or felt overwhelmed, that is not the sound now raining down on the community.
But ground realities and better facts don’t seem to distress the opinion-makers. For instance, final figures up-ended the myth promoted election night by so many TV anchors, that the contest was a blowout. Percentages confirm a badly divided state. Turnout was high for a governor’s race, but mystifyingly not as high as energy on both sides led observers to expect. Walker picked up 200, 000 votes over 2010 but did you know his opponent, Tom Barrett, also picked up more than 160,000?
The Democrats thought from the energy on the ground that the race was a lot closer. They were wrong. But in hindsight the Republicans clearly thought the same because they panicked, unleashing last minute dirty tricks and misdirection. Unnecessary, it turns out. The voters had clearly made up their minds weeks before to give Walker a full four years.
Several voted that way because they still think the governor walks on water -- or at least bought into his argument of courage not misdirection tackling hard issues. But a lot, exit polls suggest, were almost holding their nose. They had determined it was too early to decide and were squeamish about the recall ferocity and what they interpreted as leftist exaggeration, but they were hardly enthusiastic about staying the course. The division of such Walker support – was it half and half or one quarter vs. three-quarters? – is something only time will clarify.
That explains why his opposition is not about to roll over but instead is gathering detailed evidence of what’s working and what is merely pretense at working. They also are struggling to convince more moderates that they were not the wild-eyed extremists in this contest. This also explains why Walker knows that next time there won’t be such unlimited funding and that actual results will have a better chance at deciding his fate.
The bigger misread was the impact of those dollars. How big a factor was the money? To the Democrats it was the deciding factor. To the Republican Party leaders it made no difference. Both are wrong and both knew it – they were speaking for the cameras.
The money spent on the Walker side was repulsive to be sure, rising to $49 million in recent reports, more than two-thirds from people outside the state who could care less about Wisconsin citizens, many the familiar reptilian right-wing names of national scorn.
But what the money mainly did was prevent the hard realities of Walker’s personality and policies from getting through, clogging every gateway of information because of a quirk in state law unlikely to be repeated (another misread in national punditry -- it was likely not to be repeated even if Walker lost).
As bad as Citizens United is in making the Democrats defend against bloated anonymous cash – and look for that anonymity to face court challenges as an overreach of even what the US Supreme Court over-reached – that wasn’t the factor June 5. It was that Walker under that state quirk enjoyed months of unlimited cash with no opponent in view to oppose his advertisements.
Though we are unlikely to see that again, there are intelligent moves in the state legislature to make sure. There is also Walker’s contrary effort to eliminate any ability to recall officials, likely to be thwarted because the senate recalls put his party one deeper in the hole in the state Senate. But what the voters rejected in keeping Walker was not having a clear-enough case, not the idea that if a governor burned down the Capitol in rage, he shouldn’t be recalled – they still want protection against a Nero.
It is the Democrats who actually are pushing some sensible legal changes including tracking all $100 or more state agency operation expenditures on a public searchable Internet site (SB 565), having a nonpartisan audit of large state agencies every five years (SB 506) and pursuing compliance with existing open meetings laws (AJR 52) – all of which would underpin the transparency so badly lacking in state government. Perhaps it was that current ease of how money could be hidden that so attracted heavy corporate outside cash to Walker. It’s another reason why sensible changes in both recall and ALEC influence are also being pursued by the Democrats.
These bills are not given much chance in the GOP dominated Assembly – unless the voters agitate in time for the August primary and November election.
But there is one thing loosely under discussion that could gain support from both sides – a limit on the percentage of out of state money that can be raised by a state official in a recall race, a simple change that would allow big money to protect the official but make certain the cash was dominated by state residents. Everyone now concedes it was unseemly and un-democratic to see 65% of Walker’s direct money flow from the outside.
Even many Republicans interviewed would support something like a 30% outsider limit in state recall races. This is recognition that these special circumstance didn’t just tilt the playing field, they eliminated it. If the Democrats wanted to engage in campaign silliness, there was no opportunity. There was nonstop silliness on the other side -- dead baby ads, uncheckable job figures, debunked $1 billion in savings, questionable education statistics treated as unquestionable education plusses – all clogging genuine public discourse. Barrett may have won the debates, but it was with attacks against a barrage of negativities without sufficient weight to change minds and no objective media analysis to back him up.
That leads to the most ridiculous interpretation of Wisconsin June 5 – and it came from GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who stood squarely on his four feet and proclaimed that the America did not need more firefighters, police and teachers, sneeringly asking, “Did (Obama) not get the message of Wisconsin?”
Well, obviously Romney was the one who didn’t get it, and he was quickly chastised by leaders of his own party while bluntly condemned by Democrats. Even Walker made an effort to preserve the collective bargaining rights – and encourage more hiring -- of police and fire fighters and even today he tries to defend his cuts in teachers as an effort to “help” education and provide the “tools” to hire more teachers, which hasn’t exactly worked out.
June if nothing else may have been too early for the public to perceive that lower wages, bigger class sizes and less revenue mobility for municipalities are a formula for disaster, but by November and certain by 2014 that should become clear. (Which is why Walker is angling for a national stage and would be a GOP vice presidential candidate were it not for that hovering John Doe probe.)
Some Republicans lamely defended Romney as meaning that where populations shrink then teachers, police and fire can be reduced, but the census shows the country ballooning and the needs growing – and Romney said the message was to attack and reduce the public workforce, not move it around. Apparently the geniuses on his staff had not educated this genius of American finance that Reagan and the two Bushes kept recessions from falling into depression by growing the size of public workers (historical fact). That federal stimulus even before Obama helped add police, fire and teachers to local duty. (In fact, Romney as Massachusetts governor relied on it). His comments were not only economic nonsense but a laughable misinterpretation of Wisconsin results.