Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What the big Democratic loss in Wisconsin tells us

It wasn't even close. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his Lt. Governor and his cronies in the state legislature all escaped defeat in this nearly unprecedented recall effort by comfortable margins.

Yet an equally comfortable majority of Wisconsin voters told exit pollers that they supported President Obama. It seems paradoxical, doesn't it?

Democratic poo-bahs attribute the defeat to money. A loophole built into Wisconsin law in 1987 allowed a governor facing recall to spend without limits, while his or her challenger would face Wisconsin's normal, fairly tight restrictions. As a consequence, Walker outspent his Democratic rival seven to one--a majority of that coming from out of state (even while Walker was talking about out of state support for his rival).

But that's not sufficient. Political historians can point to lots of races that the bigger spenders lost. We just had one in California, where billionaire Meg Whitman lost to her Democratic opponent, despite spending far more.

On the other hand, it sure didn't hurt. All other things being equal, whoever spends more is likely to win, and in a majority of races I believe the bigger spender does tend to win--especially when the spending ratio is as lopsided as seven to one.

The Republicans had other things going for them as well. The American public generally believes that government employees have upended the old deal of them getting less compensation in exchange for more security--now it has become axiomatic that they get both more compensation in the long run (through fat pensions and medical care insurance) as well as more job security (though huge numbers of government workers have been laid off over the last four years, so it's not as secure as it once was, though strict seniority rules do make it more predictable than in the private sector).

So a campaign centered on preserving government union workers' advantages that most voters lack, and which most voters believe their city/county/state government can't ultimately pay for...well, that's a very flawed foundation for a political campaign. I was struck by the lack of mention of this in the Democratic analysis I saw.

Moreover, many voters--regardless of party--want something as extreme as a recall limited to extreme cases of malfeasance. That didn't seem to be the case with Governor Walker. Democrats did say that destroying the public employee unions wasn't what the Governor said he'd do when he was running for office. On the other hand, this election endorses just that.

The outrage of the Democratic activists struck many Wisconsinites--even Democrats--as greed and overreach, therefore.

It's interesting that President Obama stayed out of it. Him being no dummy, I can only conclude that he saw this effort was doomed--probably for the reasons I've given here--and thus decided to steer clear of the loss.

The long game underlying the Wisconsin Waterloo is that the Republicans' prime source of support is billionaires; the Democrats' is unions. And most private sector unions have been decimated by the outsourcing of manufacturing to abroad, leaving them with the public sector unions. The GOP plan is to destroy the Democrats' funding while at the same time eliminating campaign spending limits.

They're succeeding on both counts. And tribalized rank and file Republicans see nothing whatsoever wrong with this, which is immoral on their parts, but tribal thinking is unprincipled thinking--beyond the principle of "whatever my side does is good, whatever your side does is bad."

The bottom line is that President Obama can still win Wisconsin this fall--but he can also lose, and the latter was made more likely by this loss.

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