Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker became the first American governor to survive a recall election last night. In a rematch of a 2010 contest, he gathered more than 53 percent of the vote and beat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett — by a margin slightly better than that Walker achieved in 2010.
As is often the case with such events, people want to draw sweeping inferences from this one event. We’ll see many articles about what this means for the future of the public employee unions that brought about Walker’s recall election after he pushed through reforms of public employee collective bargaining rights, for Republican governors in other states, and for President Obama’s reelection prospects. It’s a natural human tendency, I think, to want to see a broad pattern in isolated events — but often those perceived patterns don’t really exist.
Public employee unions aren’t going away. They lost in their bid to unseat Walker in Wisconsin, but they defeated another public employee collective bargaining law in Ohio. Where’s the pattern in that? Members of public employee unions, like other members of private-sector unions, believe in collective bargaining rights. One reason they objected so strongly to Walker’s reforms is that they believe the reforms improperly interfere with fairly gained, bargained-for rights and benefits, won after hard-fought negotiations in which union members may have given in on other issues. In their eyes, the fact that taxpayers and people in the private sector might view those rights and benefits as overly rich is irrelevant, because they are stalwart believers in the collective bargaining process that achieved those rights. Public employee unions in other states aren’t going to roll over just because the unions did not prevail in Wisconsin. If they did, it would undercut the entire idea of public employee labor unions.
I also doubt that Walker’s win is going to charge Republican governors in other states with enthusiasm for taking on public employee unions and pushing sweeping reforms — at least, no more so than is absolutely necessary to achieve balanced budgets and govern responsibly. Walker prevailed, but his actions precipitated a bruising political battle, sidetracked his term with a recall campaign and election, and ultimately resulted in more than $60 million in campaign spending, much of it by organizations outside of Wisconsin. It’s therefore no surprise that Walker was playing the pipes of peace after yesterday’s result. Although politicians love to talk about “fighting” for voters, one way or another, most of them are inveterate compromisers who aren’t looking to pick a knife fight, especially when they know they can’t count on advocacy groups supporting their efforts to the same extent that occurred in Wisconsin.
As for President Obama, he largely stayed out of the Wisconsin recall election fray and will be able to depict it as a one-shot, one-state result that doesn’t have broad national significance. How do you glean national trends from an election rematch that produced pretty much the same result as the initial 2010 election between Walker and Barrett? If there is a lesson there, it is that voters stuck with Walker, despite all of the controversy and protests, in a contest that involved extraordinary spending by both sides. But how many of those Walker voters cast their ballots because they object, in principle, to recall elections under such circumstances? How many were motivated by special concerns not found in the national electorate? I’m just not convinced that the Wisconsin results in June are going to predict much with respect to national results in November.
The Wisconsin recall election is an interesting mid-year event that may be the start of a trend — or it may not.