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Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Wisconsin Recall Election: A Predictor of the U.S. Presidential Election?

According to Paul Abowd of the Center for Public Integrity (presumably not located in Wisconsin), the election to fill the governor’s office in the wake of Scott Walker’s recall “has become a referendum on the future of public sector unions.” That the union of teaching-assistant students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison refused to endorse Barrett precisely because he was not making collective bargaining rights a salient part of his campaign would suggest that Abowd had it wrong. Moreover, it is a mistake to read the election results in Wisconsin as a harbinger of things to come in the U.S. presidential election five months later in November 2012.

During his campaign, Barrett downplayed the public-sector union issue because he figured he already had his base, which had detested Walker for more than a year. Barrett was going for the independents who saw the recall petition as sour-grapes by a vocal interest group (the student union validating this judgment). Most tellingly, the teaching-assistant student-union had even refused to endorse the unions’ own favorite for Democratic nominee, Kathleen Falk, who had lost to Barrett in the primary by twenty points. Falk had promised not to sign any legislation until a bill restoring the public-sector unions' collective-bargaining rights is presented. You cannot get much more pro-union than that, and yet even THAT was not good enough for the graduate students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (not THE UW, as there are other campuses!). At the very least, it would appear that the graduate school's admissions committees at the university in Madison could have been doing better in their decisions, at least in regard to assessing maturity and judgment. 

I count it as a good thing that Barrett’s position on restoring the Wisconsin government workers’ bargaining right was less “my way or the highway” than was Falk’s position because Barrett was evincing a more mature or seasoned approach to governance. In contrast, the teaching-assistants’ union can be read as evincing the self-defeating and immature rigidity of “my way or the highway.” The contending camps in Wisconsin’s Democratic Party reflected this difference of political culture between Milwaukee and Madison. Hence, the dynamic cannot be assumed to operate at the U.S. level.

Furthermore, Mitchell, a young fireman whose involvement in his union probably won him the Democratic nomination for Vice (or lieutenant) Governor (as an after-thought by most voters), was at the time both too young and inexperienced in terms of public office to occupy the second-highest office in the land, not to mention the highest. At an outdoor rally in a street-alcove after a motley march that took place in downtown Madison the day after the primary, Mitchell easily stood out in video of the event because he was the only person in the warm weather wearing a grey suit. His political inexperience really stood out as he could be seen walking through the crowd, insisting on shaking hands with people even as they were trying to listen to the speakers. Perhaps most tellingly, he bumped into at least one person who preferred to keep listening to the speaker rather than turn around to shake hands. I suspect that Mitchell was trying to be a "professional" politician in a very atypical (and thus inappropriate) context (i.e., the recall). This itself essentially disqualified him from the office he was seeking, especially because it was possible that had he won along with Walker, the young fireman could have found himself assuming the office of governor.

The quality of the Democrats’ choice for vice governor mattered particularly because Walker was being investigated at the time by U.S. and Wisconsin law-enforcement agencies for corruption while he had been chief executive of the County of Milwaukee. In Illinois, Quinn had become the head of state and chief executive of the government when "Blago" was impeached and removed from office for trying to sell Barak Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. Were Mitchell to have won even as Bartlett lost, the novice could have found himself eventually taking over for Walker. It is not at all advisable to have a political novice in the highest office in the land. I suspect that this factor weighed on independent voters.

It would be perfectly understandable, therefore, for Wisconsinites in favor of Barrett to have skipped the lieutenant governor race based on principle (i.e., putting the interest of the public good over partisanship), even if that could have resulted in the governor and lieutenant governor being of different parties. Because the lieutenant governor office has some important powers when the governor is not in Wisconsin, such a scenario would certainly not be optimal for Barrett supporters. Therefore, I believe the Democrats in Wisconsin dropped the ball in voting in the primary for a nominee for lieutenant governor. To be sure, they made a good choice in picking Barrett’s mature approach to restoring union rights over Falk’s “my way of the highway” mentality on the "single issue" of a union's bargaining rights. The refusal of at least one union in Madison to back Barrett further compromised the Democrats’ strength in defeating Walker.  These are idiosyncratic elements in the Wisconsin “recall election” that don’t project onto the U.S. as a whole. 

Most obviously, going into the recall election, the sitting governor (or president) of Wisconsin was a Republican whereas the sitting U.S. president was a Democrat. Also, whereas Mitchell was a political novice at the time (being plucked out of a fire department union), Obama’s VP was an experienced former U.S. Senator and VP. In terms of the parties, Barrett was not associated with Obama's weaknesses (e.g., Obamacare), and Walker did not have Romney's problems with conservatives. Indeed, some Obama supporters crossed over to vote for Walker--a fact that Obama no doubt had foreseen as he was staying away from campaigning for Barrett.

Moreover, the United States is not a state with a very large back yard. Given the heterogeneous political, economic, religious and social cultures of the republics in the U.S., it is not a good idea to simply project the results in Wisconsin on the U.S. as a whole. Furthermore, there are issues that are only relevant at the U.S. level, such as foreign policy. I must conclude that the U.S.-based media was being much too simplistic in regarding the Wisconsin race as an indicator of the “upcoming” U.S. elections. Lest all politics is local, the results of a U.S.-wide election can be viewed as a quilt of various majorities rather than as one huge aggregate. Yet reductionism to U.S.-level politics seems a preoccupation or obsession, at least for the major American media companies, as if the American republics existed only in so far as they contribute to U.S. races. I suspect that the culprit is American business more generally, as large corporations have found it cheaper to have one set rather than fifty sets of government regulations. Reducing American politics to the U.S. stage serves this purpose.


Paul Abowd, “CPI: Wisconsin Recall Battle Is State’s Most Expensive Election,”MSNBC.com, June 3, 2012. http://openchannel.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/06/03/12026389-cpi-wisconsin-recall-battle-is-states-most-expensive-election?lite

Amanda Terkel, “Wisconsin Recall: Election Law Quirk Could Throw Governance Into Disarray,” The Huffington Post, June 3, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/03/wisconsin-recall-quirk-election-law_n_1566400.html?show_comment_id=158844292#comment_158844292