The results of last night’s recall elections in Wisconsin left the Republican governing authority intact, but the fact remains the GOP immediately lost two seats and came within a few thousand votes from losing its majority, while the Republican governor’s approval ratings continue to tank. The rallying cry of “hey–it could have been (and almost was) much worse” is not the best justification to celebrate.
That the state GOP was not completely steamrolled in recall elections is good for the party’s fight against public unions. But if this is celebrated as an unqualified “win,” the national Republican party will fail to learn important lessons from the public’s response to Scott Walker’s policies.
It’s absolutely true if the results stand, Republicans in Wisconsin will have survived a ferocious union ground game and a challenge to their governing power. And it’s possible, as Alana suggests, Walker’s plans will gain popularity as time marches on. But so far that isn’t the case. Alana quotes a Washington Post report in which Republicans defend their losses last night: “Republicans acknowledge that they were essentially caught flat-footed by the whole thing.” That’s their defense? Republican state officials admit they were caught off-guard by the recall efforts Democrats had promised. So who will be fired over this? Someone surely ought to be. This issue has been on the national political radar for months, and the Wisconsin GOP leadership admits they took a nap at the wheel.
But the most important takeaway here is one the GOP seems utterly unwilling to process. It wasn’t all about the demand public employees pay into their benefit accounts. Sure, the unions didn’t like it, but it wasn’t what enraged them and made them think they were in a battle for their survival. It was the proposed limits to their collective-bargaining abilities that both Walker and the unions saw as essential to eroding the unions’ true source of power.
In New Jersey–a bluer state than Wisconsin–Chris Christie passed similar legislation that forced employees to pay into their very generous benefits, but left untouched the collective-bargaining facet of the unions’ power. And Christie had a compelling explanation for why he didn’t seek to limit the collective-bargaining process, even though the practice has destroyed so much of the state’s municipal balance sheets:
I love collective bargaining…. I’ve said let’s get rid of civil service and let everything be collectively bargained, as long as collective bargaining is fair, tough, adversarial and there’s someone in that room representing you.
Christie, in other words, won the public relations battle by showing he truly represents the taxpayers. It was such a landslide PR victory, in fact, that the state’s heavily Democratic legislature went along with the bills. Last night, the Wisconsin GOP barely held on. If they don’t learn the right lessons from this battle, they might not be so lucky next time.