(From The Progressive Populist)
Right-wingers spent more than $48.5 million to keep Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in office, outspending the Democrats by more than 2.5 to 1, and they succeeded in convincing enough Democrats and independent voters that the union-busting Republican governor, also known to state prosecutors as “John Doe” in an investigation of his use of his office as Milwaukee County executive for political purposes before he was governor, should not be turned out of office because he had not been indicted yet.
Republicans predictably claimed the recall election was a setback for Barack Obama and his Democratic allies as they prepare for the general election. But that ignores the exit polls that show 51% of the June 5 electorate in Wisconsin plan to vote for Obama; it also ignores that Democrats won a recall election against one of the Republican senators who voted for the union-busting bill, flipping the Senate to a Democratic majority, which prevents the Republicans from doing any more damage this year.
But enough moderate-to-liberal Wisconsin voters did not believe it was right to recall the governor over merely political differences. Polls show that 38% of voters from union households voted to keep Walker and 18% of those who plan to vote for Obama in the fall opposed the recall. That Midwestern sense of fair play can drive political activists through the roof, but those fair-minded liberals saved Walker’s bacon.
That compunction against voting to recall a governor simply because you don’t agree with him shouldn’t have an impact in November, but Obama and the Democrats need to show they are more serious about getting businesses as well as state and local governments to rehire the 12.5 million Americans who remain unemployed. They also need to protect the jobs that are threatened by profiteering corporate executives who are willing to take advantage of “free trade” laws to relocate factories overseas in their constant search for increased quarterly dividends. And Democrats must stand up for labor’s right to collective bargaining, which is under attack across the country.
Obama is still in good shape in Wisconsin, particularly if he can increase the turnout of younger voters and minorities, but the state was a “testing ground” for the new no-limits campaign spending allowed by the US?Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling — and it showed how potent that money from the plutocrats can be. “I think that people do not fully understand the disaster that Citizens United was,” US Sen. Bernie Sanders said of the 5–4 Supreme Court decision in 2010. “What that did is open the floodgates so that billionaires like the Koch brothers and others are now prepared to spend unbelievable sums of money to elect extreme right-wing candidates.”
Sanders is a leading supporter of amending the Constitution in order to assure that all Americans — not just billionaires and corporations — have a voice in American politics. “Right now, we are moving toward an oligarchic type of society where big money not only controls the economy — they’re going to have a very, very heavy say in who gets elected,” the independent senator from Vermont said on Ed Schultz’s radio show.
Some progressives in Wisconsin complained that they did not get enough financial support from the White House or the Democratic National Committee, while Walker could draw all the financial support he needed from his billionaire benefactors. Walker raised $30.5 million to fight the recall, and “independent groups” allied with Walker spent another $18 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, while Barrett raised $4 million and his allies spent $15.5 million. The Democratic National Committee sent $1.4 million to Wisconsin and helped the state party raise funds, and the Democratic Governors Association sent $900,000, but the party and Obama’s campaign mainly focused on building the turnout machine. Dems never expected to match the GOP in the broadcast air war, so their hopes rested on the organizations working door to door to get out the vote.
There was a lot of overreaction to the Wisconsin results, with one commentator writing that Walker “humiliated his Democratic opponent” by “easily turning back a popular recall attempt sponsored by unions and liberals.” If nearly $50 million is what an easy victory costs, I’d hate to see what a hard-fought victory costs, but Democrats did flip the Senate majority, so the progressive effort was not wasted.
Some said the unions should have called for a general strike instead of a recall election, but that ignores the fact that a majority of Wisconsin voters, including a large share of Democrats, and even union members, wouldn’t turn out an incumbent governor who had abused the political process, attacked the public employee unions and clearly supports making Wisconsin a “right to get fired” state. If the unions were powerful enough to force change with a general strike they would have been powerful enough to beat Walker.
Unfortunately, there is evidence that a substantial number of working people in the state agreed with the Republican view that public employees’ unions needed to be taken down a peg. Even retirees who owe their financial security to the pensions that unions secured for them too often are willing to enforce austerity on others. Democrats need to work on educating those people in the next five months.
Also, Obama should have shown up to support the unions and Barrett, rather than simply tweeting his support for Barrett on the eve of the election. Obama clearly didn’t want to personalize the election, but the failure of the Democrats is getting blamed on him anyway.
Van Jones, the grassroots activist and former White House “green jobs czar,” told TalkingPointsMemo.com he is glad the defeat happened when it did. “I’m glad this is an alarm clock — it sounds like a fire alarm — but I’m glad it’s going off in June, and not in November,” he said. “I think there were a lot of progressives who looked at the Republican party and fell down laughing at what looked like the Three Stooges, and also looked at the jobs numbers, which were getting better, and were saying literally a week ago, ‘Obama’s got it in the bag.’ I’m sad about the outcome, but I’m glad we got the wake-up call. Our opponents are serious.”
Ronald Brownstein noted at NationalJournal.com (6/7), “In both parties, many activists will say Walker’s survival proves that in this polarized era, the only way to achieve effective change is to ruthlessly unify your own party, concede nothing to the other party (or its constituencies), and bulldoze forward as long as you can hold support from 50-plus-1 percent of the voters. But other governors facing comparable strains have shown that is not the only choice.
Brownstein also noted that in Connecticut, Gov. Daniel Malloy, a Democrat also elected in 2010, closed a deficit as large as Wisconsin’s with $1 billion in spending reductions, $1.5 billion in tax increases and $1.6 billion in union concessions. “It wasn’t easy, but the plan ultimately drew support from public-employee unions (after initial resistance) and the chief executives of the major insurance companies that anchor the state’s business community. The fact that Malloy pursued tax increases and spending cuts made it easier to seek union concessions — and vice versa.”
“It was a balanced approach, and that made it easier to do that big ask of labor,” Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior adviser, told Brownstein. “It was a big ask. But it was also a big ask of taxpayers and people who depend on the social safety net.”
A big ask — and one that Scott Walker and his partisans in Wisconsin and other states Republicans have taken over as well as congressional Republicans are not willing to seek. As Molly Ivins said, “these people don’t want to govern; they want to rule.”
Progressives have to pick themselves up after the Wisconsin disappointment, celebrate that Democrats at least regained control of the state Senate and learn their lesson for the fight to come. The plutocrats won’t give up and neither can we.