A month ago today Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker defeated Democrat Tom Barrett and retained his office, as did Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three of four Republican state senators.
The results were similar to 2010, when Walker beat Barrett 52-46 percent. Handing Walker a 53-46 victory, voters apparently “concluded it is not best to swap horses while crossing the river,” as Lincoln said after winning reelection in 1864.
True, Racine Democrat John Lehman narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Van Wanggaard for a Senate seat, returning control of the Senate to the Dems and stopping the Walker onslaught for now. True, union members supported Walker’s recall by a huge 75-25 percent margin, according to Hart Research Associates. And, true, exit polls there showed that Obama leads Mitt Romney by almost the same margins as Walker beat Barrett. But that’s it for “good news,” and most post-mortems say that a combination of big money and a flawed strategy spelled doom for the effort to oust the union-busting strongman.
It’s not “blaming the victim” to say that more grassroots education and involvement were needed.
Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash, said, “It is clear from Wisconsin that a good percentage of that 99% is voting for politicians … that are economically injurious to a majority of them. A few weeks back, a video of Scott Walker showed him promising to use a strategy of divide and conquer to break up the unions.”
He did, and he is. Walker took the public’s frustration with the economy and focused it against public workers – whether teachers, firefighters or government office workers – who he painted as pampered, not unlike Republicans for decades have blamed “welfare queens” for all kinds of problems.
Mike McCabe, director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said, “Republicans use powerful economic wedge issues to great impact. They go into rural counties and say, ‘Do you have pensions? No? Well, you're paying for theirs,’ referring to public sector workers. ‘Do you have health care? No? Well, you're paying for theirs. Do you get wage increases? No? Well, you're paying for theirs’.”
Walker convinced many of the false claim that unions caused the state’s financial woes, justifying the governor gutting health, education and equal-pay rights while getting money to corporate supporters.
Diablo Valley College professor Adam Bessie wrote, “Walker's tax cuts for private business appear to be underwritten by cuts in public sector benefits. If he succeeds, the money will literally be handed from the pockets of public servants to private business owners.”
Money made a difference in the campaign, too. Barrett, Milwaukee’s mayor, raised about $4 million while Walker had $30 million to spend, according to the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which shows that two-thirds of Walker’s 7-1 advantage came from out of state. Corporations may be so cheap they’ll break the law or outsource work to cut labor costs, but they’ll spend on ads. [A digression: Advertising works. Aspirin is aspirin, bleach is bleach, but ads sell “brand-name” aspirins and bleach. And candidates.]
But besides the well-funded ad campaign, the loss may have stemmed from the switch from a movement struggling against an anti-worker agenda to (merely) campaigning and voting. After all, the Wisconsin Uprising was a mass insurgency, with carpenters, electricians and teamsters joining public workers on the streets and in the Capitol.
Occupied Wall Street Journal writer Arun Gupta and Steve Horn wrote, “Whereas the recall began as a democratic, populist revolt, by the end, the politics were dictated by consultants, pollsters and advertising campaigns. All the energy was spent on futile campaigns for Democrats who support austerity-lite policies.”
So the uprising was de-mobilized and diverted to electoral politics: a recall.
And take the Democrats. Please.
In 2007, candidate Barack Obama pledged, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I'm in the White House ... I'll walk on that picket line with you,” but the White House and the Democratic Party weren’t part of the larger fight in a meaningful way.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka tried to put a positive spin on the outcome, saying, “The work we did together was about much more than just this one election. Working people are making history every day through their courage and resolve to work together for a better world. For you, it may have begun with Wisconsin, but it should not stop there.”
Maybe some things should stop there, like telling thousands of people to go home and regard the ballot box as the only answer to serious crises. Like: In the future, avoid repeating history.
Bill Knight is a freelance writer. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.