Ever since the Wisconsin standoff began, the conservative narrative about it has been built on a clear and demonstrable falsehood: That the voters of Wisconsin endorsed Scott Walker’s controversial proposals, and that Dems fighting them were subverting the people’s will. The reason conservatives continue repeating this lie even after the outcome is simple: To ensure that other GOP governors don’t go all weak-kneed as they eye similar proposals themselves.
George Will’s column today — “Liberals’ Wisconsin Waterloo” — recycles this myth yet again. Will claims that Dems only fought Walker’s proposals because they are in the pocket of Big Labor and they wanted to “overturn the 2010 elections.” Will claims that Dems staged the recalls out of a stubborn refusal to accept that voters had “endorsed” Walker’s agenda, and that Dems and labor were not speaking for the people of Wisconsin in doing so.
The only problem with this is that it has nothing whatsoever in common with reality.
In fact, what actually happened is that voters never had a chance to pass judgment on the radical aspects of Walker’s agenda at all before he enacted it. This is a matter of simple, demonstrable fact. Walker never campaigned on any explicit promise to roll back public employee bargaining rights — indeed, this is precisely what triggered the outpouring of protest in the first place.
You don’t have to take my word for this. Listen to Politifact — and even to Walker himself. At the outset of this fight, Walker tried to claim that he had, in fact, campaigned on his union-busting proposals. But when Politifact asked Walker’s aides to produce evidence of this, they were unable to provide anything even remotely convincing, and Politifact pronounced the claim “false.” What’s more, Walker himself subsequently admitted under persistent questioning that he had never explicitly campaigned on a promise to roll back bargaining rights. And once Walker did spring his surprise union-busting proposal on Wisconsin, the state’s residents resoundingly rejected it in poll after poll. That labor and Dems were able to gather the signatures necessary to stage an unprecedent amount of recall elections is itself testament to public rejection of Walker’s plan.
As I have argued, the failure by labor and Dems to take back the state senate did constitute a real defeat. And I am skeptical that the energy exists to successfully recall Walker. But there is simply no way, as Will suggests, to interpret the outcome of the recall fight as an endorsement of Walker’s agenda.
In reality, as Nate Silver showed, Democrats outperformed Walker’s 2010 vote count in multiple Republican districts, showing that the voter backlash to Walker was (and remains) very real, even if it wasn’t quite enough to snatch three senate seats from the GOP.
The fact that conservatives see the need to keep dissembling about the core truth here — that neither Wisconsinites nor the American people ever endorse Walker’s radical union-busting — is itself proof that they are well aware that Walker overreached in the eyes of the American people, and that there’s no meaningful public mandate for what you might call “Walkerism.” It’s true that Dems and labor failed to enact the dramatic and immediate electoral consequences they’d hoped for. But the bottom line remains that the ones who actually subverted the popular will in Wisconsin were Republicans, not Democrats. The fact that Republicans barely managed to get away with it by hanging on to the state senate by a single vote doesn’t change that simple truth.