In Wisconsin, the Left Picked a Fight—and Lost

It doesn't mean Obama is going to lose, but the failed attempt to recall Scott Walker gives Democrats and organized labor reason to fear an emboldened conservative agenda.


Updated 6/6/2012 8:26 a.m.

It's important to remember, as Democrats cope with their failure to topple Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday's recall, that this was a fight they chose.

Unlike the vast majority of elections, which occur on a regular schedule, the recall was a fight the left picked on purpose. They picked it because they thought they could win. And they were wrong.

It wasn't even close. In the final tally, Walker led his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by 53 percent to 46 percent.

The idea behind the recall effort was to send a message: a warning to conservatives across the country that there was a line not to be crossed when it came to messing with the hard-earned gains of public worker unions. By losing, however, the consortium of unions, progressives and Democrats that worked so ardently to send Walker packing may have sent the opposite message. If Walker can survive, what's to stop any other right-leaning governor from pushing the envelope?

"This really is a test case. The far right made Wisconsin its petri dish," said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action Wisconsin, a grassroots progressive group that supported the recall effort. Walker's win, he said, will embolden the Koch brothers and other national conservative funders to get ideologically sympathetic Republicans to push their agenda across the country.

"Wisconsin will not be the high water mark of the attack on unions, public employees, and the middle class," Kraig said. "You will see more Walker-like politicians elected in other states, and you will see more current governors taking this type of attack."

When I interviewed Walker a couple of months ago, that was his prediction, too, though he naturally didn't put it in quite those terms. If he prevailed in the recall, he told me, "It suggests to other elected officials that you can tackle tough issues, you can face the wrath of organized special interests like the public employee unions, and ultimately prevail," he said. "They're not going to be able to bully and intimidate people who are trying to act in the best interest of the taxpayers."

It's not only Republican governors, Walker noted, who are pushing to reform the pension, benefit and pay privileges enjoyed by public workers. He pointed to the efforts of Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, Lincoln Chafee (a liberal independent) in Rhode Island, Andrew Cuomo in New York and Jerry Brown in California, all of whom have approached the issue of public sector pension reform, if in less inflammatory manner.

The results for the labor movement, of which the public sector is now the backbone, could be dire. Already, there are signs Walker has succeeded in crippling Wisconsin's unions, whose membership has sharply declined since his reforms made it easier for workers to opt out and harder for the groups to gain recognition. In just over a year, the union representing state workers has seen its membership drop by two-thirds, while the American Federation of Teachers has lost more than a third of the 17,000 members it formerly claimed in Wisconsin, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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