With one day to go before Wisconsin voters vote to decide whether or not to recall Governor Scott Walker, polls are still showing the Republican clearly favored to retain his office. After more than a year of effort by a vengeful union movement and their Democratic allies, the decision to try to punish Walker for passing legislation that cut back on the power of unions to hold the state hostage in negotiations may turn out to be the biggest miscalculation of 2012. With President Obama looking on fearfully (and carefully avoiding any personal involvement in the contest), the only thing bitter Wisconsin liberals may have accomplished is putting their state in play for Mitt Romney this November.
With Walker looking like a winner tomorrow, the coverage of the race has shifted to a discussion of how the recall will affect the presidential contest, with even the New York Times now conceding the recall may have helped to turn Wisconsin from a solid Obama state in 2008 to a crucial swing state that could cost him re-election. If the GOP emerges victorious tomorrow, liberals will not only have transformed Walker from an embattled incumbent to a national powerhouse, but they may also have set the stage for a Democratic debacle that could cost their party the White House. If that happens, the party will have only their union allies to blame for a decision that was rooted in anger rather than smart politics.
Looking back on the process that led them to this situation, the problem for the Democrats is that there never seems to have been a point at which either state or national party leaders sat down to ponder a cost/benefit analysis of an attempt to unseat Walker. The political drama that unfolded in Madison throughout 2011 was an emotional roller coaster on which liberals realized only too late the ride had no escape hatch.
Wisconsin elected a Republican governor and legislature in 2010 as the Tea Party revolt against President Obama and his stimulus and ObamaCare plans fed conservative anger about taxes and spending. Much to the surprise of his foes, Walker and his allies in the legislature decided they would fulfill their campaign pledges and seek to ensure the state worker unions would be prevented from dragging Wisconsin steadily over the financial cliff again. Though the proposal to cut back on some collective bargaining rights for state workers was controversial, the violent reaction from the union thugs who stormed the statehouse and the absurd decision of Democratic legislators to flee the state to avoid a vote on the measure didn’t help the liberal cause. Though Walker may have seemed vulnerable after winning this battle, the idea to push for a recall was based on emotion, not political calculation. Liberals were so angry at Walker for keeping his word to the voters and not backing down in the face of protests that they never stopped to think that an effort to reverse the 2010 election results would strike many voters as both unnecessary and unfair.
The immediate problem in Wisconsin for liberals is not so much that Walker has persuaded a majority of voters that he is right — though there is clear evidence he has made headway despite the avalanche of criticism he got in the mainstream media — but that even many of those inclined to side with the Democrats have been convinced the left is dead wrong. The recall election is rightly perceived as nothing more than a form of payback for the drubbing the unions got in the legislature last year, and that has left a bitter taste in many voters’ mouths. If Walker survives tomorrow, the consequences will not only mean he will be strengthened, but that Democrats will emerge looking both petty and weak.
But the blowback from this foolish effort will not just be felt by a thuggish union movement that thought it could intimidate Walker last year and bulldoze the state in 2012. It will be President Obama, who won Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008, who may ultimately pay the biggest price for the rush to recall. Though a Republican has not won the state’s electoral votes since Ronald Reagan did it in 1980 and 1984, it should be remembered that George W. Bush came close in 2000 and 2004. If it turns out the state changes back from solid blue to tossup, President Obama will look back at a recall that was the fruit of his supporters’ unchecked anger as the source of his troubles.