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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Recall in Broader Perspective

No matter how much lipstick we put on the pig, there’s no evading the fact that Republicans beat Democrats in five of six elections in Wisconsin on Tuesday, one of the worst days Dems have experienced in recent years.
The Monitor’s Peter Grier piles on, quoting former PA Governor Ed Rendell, who said “It was a dumb political fight – I would have waited until Walker’s reelection…If we’re [peeved off] at what a person does in office, the answer is to beat them when they’re up for reelection” and former Rep. Barney Frank, who added “My side picked a fight they shouldn’t have picked.” Grier adds,

Plus, the recall election was a rerun of the state’s 2010 gubernatorial race, with Walker facing the same opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The “Groundhog Day” aspect of the vote only added to voter perceptions that it was somehow a distortion of the normal political process, according to Rendell.

Yet Rendell and Frank, as well as triumphalist Republicans are missing the big picture. Broaden the time frame, and it becomes clear that the recall coalition helped to check Republican union-bashing.
Republicans made crushing of the labor movement a cornerstone of their grand strategy to clobber Democrats in November. By destroying public workers’ unions, especially in swing states, they hope to eliminate a major source of Democratic funding and campaign manpower. They won the Wisconsin battle, at least temporarily. But even there, they will be checked by Democratic control of the state senate, barring a corrupt recount. Their war is stalled.
Their union-bashing initiative was turned back, make that humiliated in Ohio, where Republican Governor Kasich ate a big plate of progressive Democratic crow. As E. J. Dionne, Jr. recounts,

It’s worth comparing what happened in Wisconsin with what happened last year in Ohio, where unions forced a referendum on the anti-labor legislation pushed through by Gov. John Kasich (R) and the Republican-controlled legislature. The unions and the Democrats won 61 percent in that vote, repealing the law. But this remedy was not available in Wisconsin…

After that heady experience, it’s understandable how WI Dems would think they could unhorse Walker. But it should now be clear that statewide recall elections are rarely good strategy. More importantly, Wisconsin progressives did not have the option of a referendum or initiative like Ohio. They needed to give Walker a big headache, and the recall looked doable in the early part of the mobilization. With benefit of hindsight, the recall effort should have been confined to members of the legislature and mobilizing to defeat Walker in the next cycle.
Last August Wisconsin Dems picked up two state senate seats as a result of the protests, and Tuesday they nailed a senate majority. “Voters used state Senate races to signal their dissatisfaction with Walker’s overreach and thus put the retained governor on notice,” notes Dionne. That’s an impressive victory for a statewide progressive coalition.
The Wisconsin protests may also have deterred union-bashing in neighboring Minnesota, where Republican state legislators decided not to push a right-to-work bill in the 2012 session. In Indiana, however, Governor Mitch Daniels signed a “right-to-work” bill into law on February 1.
Looking ahead, Republicans will be crowing about Walker’s big win and how they are going to replicate it all over the country. But Walker’s agenda will be hobbled by Democratic control of the state Senate. He will reign as a GOP golden boy for a bit, but the possibility of a criminal investigation looms over his near future. Walker knows that his little war on unions has had a price and there is more to come if he wants it. The lesson is not likely to be lost on more sober Republican governors.
In terms of national strategy, Dionne writes,

For the left, conservative hubris would be the best outcome from Wisconsin. Nothing would do more to push swing voters the progressives’ way. But liberals and labor are operating in a difficult environment. They need to pick their fights carefully and match their energy with a new discipline and a cool realism about the power arrayed against them.

As for organized labor, they clearly have work to do in promoting solidarity between public and private sector workers in their own ranks, as well as with unorganized workers across America. They also have to more effectively challenge the meme that public workers have extravagant pensions, propagated by Republicans who amplify a few horror stories as emblematic of public worker retirement benefits. To grow, they have to begin experimenting more creatively with new forms of union membership, benefits and recruitment.
Meanwhile, exit polls indicate Obama is still running strong in Wisconsin. There is also reason to hope that the coalition progressives put together will benefit Democrats in November and beyond. The Wisconsin progressive coalition and the Occupy campaigns have done a lot to energize and mobilize a movement for economic justice, which may yet prevail. In that context, Walker’s win shrinks considerably.

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