The Meaning of Wisconsin

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Democrats have two semi-plausible excuses for what happened in Wisconsin: the Republicans' enormous money advantage and the sense among many voters that the election should not have been called in the first place. Dismissing Walker's win for these or other reasons, as many progressives are inclined to, is ridiculous. It's also dumb, as it sweetens the GOP victory. The best outcome for Republicans is that Democrats learn nothing from this defeat and stay on their present course--just as they did after Scott Brown, just as they did after the 2010 mid-terms.

Before I get to that, let me mention a category of analysis deserving special recognition: articles calling the defeat a victory, actually. Katrina vanden Heuvel floated this concept even before the votes were in.

On Tuesday, all eyes will be watching to see whether Wisconsin voters will keep labor-bashing right-winger Scott Walker (R) in the governor's mansion. But win or lose, the real story is the 15 months of people power leading up to this day. The real lesson lies in more than a year of progressive organizing, petitioning, canvassing and campaigning for the cause. The real result is a progressive movement that is deeper and broader than before.

Something to build on, said the headline. Oh definitely. Winning isn't the point. Fighting the righteous fight is the point. Organize, petition, canvas, campaign--and lose. Think how strong the foundations for a Democratic revival will be if the party just keeps this up. I look forward to "President Romney Is A Good Thing for Democrats". I mean, that would really give them something to build on.

Back in the realm of intelligible responses, how much weight should one give to the money advantage, and to the idea that many voters rejected the recall in principle?

I'm agnostic on the power of political advertising. I assume it works, or else why would rich men spend all that money on it? I also think it's corrupting, and should be limited on those grounds. But I find it hard to imagine my own or anybody else's mind being changed by endless repetition of stupid, annoying TV spots (unless it was to vote the other way in protest).

The other main excuse--many voters objected to the recall in principle--makes no sense to me at all. Sure, that's what a lot of voters told exit polls, but I can't believe it was determinative for more than a handful. Ask yourself how many people thought "labor-bashing right-winger" Walker's reforms were outrageous, then turned out to vote for him anyway because of their scruples over recalls. Please.

Enough with the excuses. The Wisconsin result is important. Yes, I'm familiar with the finding that special elections have no predictive power--but this was a special special election. It was fought on a core policy issue (not a question of misconduct, though Barrett tried to take it there), and one, as you may have noticed, that resonates nationally. The energized electorate of Wisconsin, a progressive-leaning state, backed the conservative Republican in a fight over public spending and the rights of public-sector unions. If that doesn't send a message Democrats should attend to, I don't know what does.

Tacitly, I suppose, Democrats do acknowledge it. That's why Barrett didn't campaign on the union question. But tacit acknowledgment isn't enough. It isn't enough, either, for the White House to blithely note that Wisconsin tells you nothing about November and leave it at that. Democrats can't abandon the unions and their causes outright, but they need to show they are listening to voters and understand. They need to accept and assimilate Wisconsin. They ignore it at their peril.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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