Why Walker Won
Democrats blame money, but might examine their muddled message.
No sooner had Democrat Tom Barrett lost the recall election than the Democrats began blasting the big moneyed interests. As the New York Times reported, President Obama’s Wisconsin state director, Tripp Wellde, “blamed what he called ‘the flood of secret and corporate money spent on behalf of Scott Walker’ for fueling a ‘politics of division’ in the state that overwhelmed Mr. Barrett.”
With all due respect, Tripp, that’s nonsense.
Sure, Barrett was at a disadvantage, with just $4 million to spend versus Walker’s $30 million. But even if the money was equal, Barrett couldn’t have won, because he never made a case to recall a sitting governor.
Back in the fall, when the Democrats first launched their recall effort, the problems with their approach become obvious. They justified the recall by talking about Walker’s poor record on jobs and cuts in education funding. But did they really expect voters would recall a governor just 18 months after his election for not increasing jobs enough, or over a policy disagreement on spending?
Everyone in the state knew the party had targeted Walker because he effectively eliminated collective bargaining for public workers. The only way to win the recall was to convince voters Walker not only took the wrong action, but did this in a way that was flagrantly anti-Democratic and therefore worthy of a recall.
Instead the party tip-toed around the issue. Barrett was fairly effective — and as fiery as we will probably every see him — accusing Walker of fomenting an ideological civil war, of dividing family members and friends. Most voters probably experienced some of these arguments, and wished Walker had done more to reach out to the other side. Moreover, polls taken back when Republicans first passed Act 10 show a majority of people opposed the elimination of collective bargaining rights.
But as Walker noted, Barrett’s suggested course of action — to reverse Act 10 — would simply recharge the same arguments and reopen the same civic wounds. Why do this unless Barrett could suggest a middle ground: some way to compromise that would reform the system or limit bargaining rights in some way?
In the background of this entire discussion was the issue of how government benefits had been abused. Notably, the Milwaukee County pension plan, which gave a long list of county veterans payouts of $300,000 to $1 million (and this was in addition to a monthly pension they will draw for life). Or the plan passed in 1998 by the Milwaukee School board, which gave a second pension to Milwaukee teachers already covered by the generous state pension plan. This increased the lifetime retirement payment for certain teachers (as with the county, a privileged group of veterans) by as much as 400 percent.
Then there was the 1999 law championed by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson that sweetened an already generous state pension plan, at a long-term cost of $5.5 billion. (Imagine if that money had been available when Walker began talking about the budget deficit) Thompson’s plan, too, was skewed to deliver the big benefits to insiders, the employees with the biggest salaries and longest tenure. The lifetime value of Thompson’s already generous pension, for instance, grew by $111,000. Numerous UW officials gained a $7,000 to $12,000 sweetener in their annual retirement payment.
Generous union contracts enabled 10 state corrections workers to collect $59,000 to $103,000 in annual overtime payments, all in addition to their regular pay. Ditto for the seven Madison bus drivers who each earned more than $100,000 annually, as a result of overtime payments of $40,000-$109,000 a year. None of these abuses sat well with John and Jane Q. Public.
There’s no doubt conservatives exaggerated what the average government worker or teacher earns. Most public employees in Wisconsin are not unreasonably compensated. But there have been abuses, which laid the groundwork for an attack on all public workers, and for Walker’s sweeping reforms. And as the months rolled on, and no Democrat came forward with a counter-proposal, voters began to move more toward Walker’s position. Tuesday’s exit polls showed 52 percent of voters favored eliminating collective bargaining rights.
Add to this that 60% of voters in the exit polls said recalls should be for official misconduct only, and you can see Barrett’s problem: he needed to get more than a majority to agree with him on the issues, because some who disagreed with Walker’s policies didn’t feel this was justification for a recall.
Nor, it appears, did the ever-expanding John Doe investigation against Walker have much impact on the race. It might have, if Democrats had made that the reason for the recall. But voters knew the recall had been launched over collective bargaining rights for public employees — and then watched as Barrett and the Democrats tried to somehow divert them from the issue. Not a winning strategy, it turns out.