Editorial: Wisconsin recall result vs. November
June 6, 2012
Much will be read into Tuesday's election in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall vote. The outcome is being billed by many analysts as a harbinger of November, showing real GOP strength in a state Barack Obama won by 14 percentage points in 2008. It is also said to be a gauge of the nation's determination to get state budgets in order and to restrict the power of labor unions.
Maybe one or more of these things will prove to be true. Or maybe not. Predictions like these — particularly those focused on November — are often a fool's errand, driven by an insatiable desire to forecast the future.
The lessons from Wisconsin are narrower and simpler:
•Perhaps the most important one is that a governor can make unpopular — but necessary — decisions to rein in bloated government and still survive. After he was elected in 2010, Walker cut aid to localities, education and Medicaid, while requiring state workers to contribute more to their pensions and health benefits. On balance, his tough-medicine approach was not unreasonable. Where he might have overreached is in stripping most public employees of their collective bargaining rights in a bid to make future contracts less generous.
Walker's effort was both a political move to clip the wings of organized labor (which is more than 50% composed of government workers, who tend to vote for Democrats) and a fiscally prudent step to weaken the ability of powerful public sector unions to use the political process to help pick the people on the other side of the bargaining table.
Regardless of motivation, Walker deserves credit for confronting the legacy created by spineless or shortsighted public officials who created massive liabilities to satisfy an important constituency. His state took steps toward fiscal responsibility that many other states and the federal government are so far refusing to take.
•Walker's survival might also have come from a second lesson: that voters are not as enthusiastic about recalling public officials as are party activists. Only two governors in U.S. history have been recalled, North Dakota's Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California's Gray Davis in 2003. And while the number of recall efforts for local and legislative office holders has surged in the past two years, Wisconsin is a pretty good indication of the practice's limits when it comes to major offices.
Public reluctance to recall help explain the wildly divergent outcomes in Wisconsin on Tuesday and in Ohio last November, when voters overwhelmingly repealed a collective bargaining law very much like the one that got Walker into hot water. In one case, voters were happy to express their discontent over a particular law. But in another they balked when told they needed to recall the governor to achieve the same end.
Governors hold office for no more than four years. Barring malfeasance or gross incompetence, they should be granted time in office to focus on tough decisions without worrying about the next election.
•A third lesson from Wisconsin is that brazen partisanship rarely accomplishes anything other than fomenting bitterness and more partisanship. Walker got into trouble not just because he went to war with powerful unions, but also because he wasn't even-handed. He went after Democratic programs and constituencies while sparing those favored by Republicans. He made deep cuts to education, while cutting some taxes and increasing spending on roads. He eliminated collective bargaining rights for teachers, but not for police officers.
Democrats responded with their own partisan fusillade, turning the recall effort into a vindictive and personal attack against Walker. They lost in part because they couldn't come up with an affirmative message about the direction of the state.
Recall elections tend to have low voter turnout, or attract vast amounts of outside money. Both of these increase the influence of special interests. Rather than looking at the Wisconsin election as an excuse to handicap future races, why not look at it for what it was — a colossal waste of time, money and energy that accomplished little but stoke further polarization.