Commentary: In Wisconsin, it seemed like 2010 all over again
By Dominique Paul Noth 10 June 2012
|MILWAUKEE - While I had to admire the graciousness in defeat and the resolve to not lose a beat in continuing the fight for workers – reflected in the remarks of Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Barrett, union leaders and the progressive coalitions that backed them – I must admit that emotionally, on June 6, the day after the bitter recall election, I am not there yet. I concede these folks are more mature than I am, but I am still dismayed and shocked.
|And emotionally conflicted, with anger and lament at the stubborn Midwest mentality that cannot look around the corner at the impending freight train. We laugh at the younger generation’s penchant for instant gratification. It turns out the June 5 results in Wisconsin embodied the unwillingness of an older, settled electorate representing a fast-fading demographic and self-absorbed isolationism.
While nearly half the state saw a need to change course rapidly, the thin majority flat resisted. A people’s revolution may have founded this country, but in terms of dynamic unshackling from entrenched powers, it seems to have lost its appeal.
This is the long-standing, occasionally admirable stubbornness of the electorate -- refusing to admit it possibly made an error and then finding resolve to rectify it. It produced, without talk about Tea Party fever and Democratic homebodies (the excuse for what happened two years ago) -- a clear replication of 2010, something most of the national TV public didn’t realize because they didn’t examine the final numbers.
Too bad GOP Gov. Scott Walker wasn’t privy to the exit polls. They indicated most of June 5’s voters made up their minds months ago. It would have saved him and his supporters nearly $49 million in campaign money endlessly blitzing the state.
Walker’s sizeable money advantage clearly had an impact in deflecting arguments about his administrative ability and his fact-fudging. It let him further myths. His dollar advantage was 8-to-1 at the end and started 10-to-1. But all that spending was unnecessary because the electorate was stiff-necked in letting him run his course.
So huge money can prop up bad leaders, but stubbornness in the electorate is an even bigger factor. Americans are great at reacting to the aftermath of floods, but not so good at moving to higher ground when they have built their houses on mud.
Unlike the curious unfolding of Tuesday night – when networks called the race for Walker within minutes of the official poll-closing time, even while long lines in Milwaukee were still voting and the victory margin was rapidly subsiding from 19% at the time of the call -- the final outcome was remarkably similar to 2010 despite all the hoopla on the ground. About as close as that year and about the same divisiveness as that year.
The turnout was not of presidential proportions, perhaps 57%. Barrett clearly needed 65% turnout to close the gap – and clearly his side thought he had it. As it was, he barely won counties he should have walked home in, and lost counties he should have dominated, such as Racine.
But at the last minute, Racine seems to have added a Democrat to the state senate, voting in John Lehman over incumbent GOPer Van Wanggaard, though a mandated recount is likely with a 779-vote margin. If Lehman’s win stands, the Democrats take control of the state senate from Walker, by one seat, 17-16.
In 2010, Walker drew 1,128,941 votes to Barrett’s 1,004,303. Both picked up considerably in 2012: 1,352,192 to 1,160,215. The 2010 percentage of 52-46 changed not much to 53-46, barely a hiccup given the incredible ferocity on the ground. Actually the numbers still mystify observers who saw the remarkably high turnout on both sides, which simply doesn’t translate into the final numbers.
All that confirmed a close division in the state and a likelihood of a continuing battle despite the GOP crowing. No wonder both pundits and political insiders in both parties expressed disbelief. Neither had made a convincing case.
But here’s what came through clearly: A statewide recall, never popular on either side, was the reluctance hardest to overcome for Barrett. He didn’t even enter the contest until voters apparently decided they would oppose the recall he was leading.
Exit polls suggest they decided before Barrett could possibly have mounted evidence about Walker’s policies, job numbers and other much-publicized claims. The main thing the money game accomplished was to prevent any contrary messaging to charge through, knock decided heads together, and change minds.
The public was already bollixed trying to figure out the impact of Walker’s policies – Do they work? Should we give them time? Is Walker courageous or just smoking something? So it simply decided not to change horses in midstream.
While it seemed obvious the electorate should have been able to add two plus two, they were indeed swept up in a mathematical tsunami. Even the simple clarity of attacking teachers didn’t move them enough.
More tragic to me was how exit polls showed nonunion households embracing a myth disproven by economists on every side. That is the attack on unions as the cause of the state’s financial problems – a charge that allowed Walker to upend education, health and equal pay rights while siphoning money to corporate backers.
I think it demonstrated ordinary taxpayers can be the harshest bosses around when they think their money is being wasted, forgetting teachers are taxpayers, too.
Somehow too much of the public clung to the idea that unions were passé and represented a past economic time and were so bloated today that Walker was right. The voters didn’t even flinch when he went further than depressing wages and benefits of public unions but illegally took away their basic rights.
There’s something unnoticed in this election because the progressives wanted to make Walker’s larger damages more of a focus than his union emasculation law. Federal courts already ruled unconstitutional Walker’s broader attempt to eliminate paycheck dues and force yearly union re-certification votes, as vindictive, not economic.
Not a single union ad or candidate pointed this out as clear evidence that Walker was simply looking to punish political opponents. Given the mixed feelings about unions, I think political insiders were fearful the public would cheer vindictiveness rather than be appalled.
I am disturbed, too, that it was unseemly, if not immoral, to watch so much outside wealth come in to protect an unproven governor and an unproven ideology, which the real conservatives I know still object to being called “conservatism,” just as the Christians I know squirm at Walker’s constant public embrace of his faith.
Somewhere, voters know the outside financiers expect a reward from Wisconsin taxpayers or in creating a beachhead to influence elections around the U.S. But it was too much of a stretch, apparently, to think the majority would get agitated about that.
What has to give the Right-Wing wealth pause, though, is another curious factor in the exit polls: That Democratic President Barack Obama leads Republican Mitt Romney by nearly the same percentage margins as Walker beat Barrett.
It is a reminder that voters may not like being told they made a mistake in the governor’s race, at least to the point of interrupting his reign, sort of saying he won the right to inflict what damage he will over the next two years. But they are obviously not married to his extremism and admire a more conciliatory approach to problem-solving.
Despite my lament, it may have been the very heat of the battle that made so many withdraw from joining in what would have indeed been a revolution.
Dominique Paul Noth is editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press.