Let’s state this clearly at the outset: Labor and Dems fell short of their objective in Wisconsin. They predicted they would retake the state senate, vowing a clear repudiation of Scott Walker’s radicalism and a clear signal that GOP governors flirting with such overreach risk severe electoral consequences. That didn’t happen. There’s no sugar-coating that this was a loss.
But now that the two Democrats targeted for recall survived their elections yesterday, bringing down the curtain on a noisy and remarkable six month fight, the larger picture is clear. What labor and Dems failed to accomplish should not diminish what they did accomplish. They revealed an important truth about the mood of the country, one that will have ramifications in 2012: There simply is no clear public mandate for a governing approach that has been widely embraced by national Republicans and conservatives as the way of the future — what we might call “Walkerism.”
The labor-backed We Are Wisconsin is distributing a memo containing some key data points. I think the group’s case is a bit overstated, but the argument makes some important points. Dem challengers gained in every single district over Walker’s performance in 2010. The new 17-16 split means that “Walker’s working majority in the Wisconsin state senate is over.” Walker — despite his national adulation — has paid a “huge political price” in the state, with his numbers tanking among independents in particular.
John Nichols adds another key point: that opponents of Walker’s proposals have now “claimed the majority of votes cast in what many saw as a statewide referendum on Walker’s policies.”
The question is whether these gains were worth the massive amounts of money and time labor and Dems invested in this fight. And this memo elides the fact that labor and Dems fell short of their own objective as they themselves defined it.
But there’s no way to look at what happened and claim that it shows that Walker has governed within his popular mandate, as conservatives have argued in order to stiffen the spines of other governors around the country. Polls on both the state and national levels have consistently shown that majorities disapproved of Walker’s proposals and supported public employee unions and their collective bargaining rights. While pundits confidently predicted after 2010 that public employees would make easy scapegoats amid dire economic times, the events in Wisconsin unexpectedly revealed a surprising level of public support for them and the right of their unions to exist. And while the Wisconsin fight ended up being about a range of issues, and not so much about union rights, it is a simple fact that Dems successfully seized on Walker’s overreach to articulate a series of unabashedly populist messages that made gains in traditionally Republican districts.
Do the gains Dems did make in those districts and with the broader public matter in practice? Yes, they do.
Walker’s ability to get his way is now hampered by the GOP’s remaining razor-thin majority. And the headway made with the Dem/labor populist message in traditionally Republican districts — and the national polls showing their message resonated with the broader public — constitute real, meaningful ground gained. They will influence how both sides write their playbooks for 2012, particularly Democrats, in this key swing state and among other swing voters. As a dress rehearsal for 2012, Wisconsin will persuade national Dems not to refrain from sharp populist messaging.
Will what happened slow the drive of other GOP governors to undertake similar reforms? Probably not. Conservatives can justifiably argue that labor did not demonstrate that these governors risk facing immediate electoral consequences. As for the chances of recalling Walker himself, the failure to take back the state senate could deliver a blow to morale that could cripple the extensive organizing necessary for a statewide recall.
But if you combine the totality of the Wisconsin events with the public backlash to Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, it is now overwhelmingly clear that the 2010 elections did not constitute a mandate for the overarching ideological approach that turned Walker into a hero among national conservatives. I believe the public is generally susceptible to the conservative economic worldview, but Wisconsin proved that GOP excess can quickly persuade the public to give the left’s case another listen. The events in Wisconsin did not amount to public vindication for Walkerism — in fact, the totality of the last six months amounted to a clear public repudiation of it.