I don’t want to dwell too much on the recall election last Tuesday, but reading through all the commentary, it occurs to me that the biggest mistake the Democrats made was having the recall at all. I imagine that even many voters who disapproved of Scott Walker nevertheless believe that the recall was expensive and unnecessary. They might have been wiser to wait until Walker was running for reelection in 2014 and made his fight with the public-sector unions a major issue. They might also have made it an issue this November, which might have helped Obama’s reelection effort, and the Democrats in Wisconsin generally, or perhaps not. The public was clearly on Walker’s side in the recall, and there is no reason to believe that would have been any different this November. Still, at least they would not have wasted all of that money and effort.
Walter Russel Mead, as usual, has a good analysis of the implications of this election.
The American left as we have come to know it suffered a devastating blow in Wisconsin last night. The organized heart of the left gave everything it had to the fight against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: heart, shoe leather, wallet and soul. The left picked this fight, on the issue and in the place of its choice; it chose to recall Walker because it believed it could win a showcase victory. That judgement was fatally flawed; it is part of a larger failure to grasp the nature of American politics and the times in which we live.
The left gave this fight everything it had. It called all the troops it could find; it raised all the money it could; it summoned the passion of its grassroots supporters, all the moral weight and momentum remaining to the American labor movement and every ounce of its strength and its will.
And it failed.
The tribes of the left danced and rallied in the streets of Madison. They knocked on doors. They staffed phone banks. They passed fliers. They organized on social media. They picketed. They sang. They brought in the celebrities and the stars; they marched seven times around the city blowing the trumpets and beating the drums. They hurled invective; they booed; they cheered.
And they failed.
For labor, this was a key test of strength and clout. Scott Walker attacked the American labor movement where it lives: the public sector unions are the only bright spot in the dismal world of modern American unions. They have the growth, they have the money, they have — or they had — the hope.
In terms of his ideas about the Blue social model and its increasing inability to provide answers to the difficulties of our postindustrial information age economy and society, the public-sector unions must surely be the bluest of the blue.
In terms of the blue social model, they are the party of the bitter clingers: the power of public sector unions among Democrats is a power that inhibits Democrats from putting forward innovative, future-facing ideas (about schools, health care, and so on) and keeps them focused firmly on the defense of the past.
Mead provides a link to a delightful piece by Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post.
Indeed, we are witnessing the first major battle between astronomical numbers of people and astronomical amounts of money.
As I write this, Walker leads in the polls, and if progressive turnout is merely ordinary, he will likely win. On the other hand, if we see the same groundswell today as on the days that led to this one, Walker can be defeated. Yet, big as this election is, it is only the first test of the progressive response to an electoral landscape overrun with money from corporations and wealthy individuals.
By attacking labor unions, flooding Wisconsin with outside cash and trying to cleanse the electorate of people who don’t look, earn or think like him, Walker has taken aim at more than a single campaign cycle or a series of policies; his real targets are the pillars of American progressivism itself. With the Romney campaign gearing up, and super PACs taking to the national airwaves, we face an unprecedented, well-funded assault on our basic values.
But progressives aren’t backing down. They’re just getting started.
Just like the South was on the path to victory after the Battle of Gettysburg, or the Germans after Stalingrad, or the Japanese after Midway. Or maybe not. They all lost the war after those setbacks. We haven’t won the war yet, but this may be the turning point.
I haven’t read anything from the Left explaining their rout yet, but I suspect that most of the commentary will resemble vanden Heuvel’s. They were beaten by money from sinister corporations and out of state wealthy individuals. Most likely the Koch brothers and Karl Rove were behind the whole thing. It couldn’t possibly be because people actually agreed with the governor that in tough times, it is not asking too much to expect even people in the public sector to tighten their belts a little.
This, of course, is a variation of the arguments in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. Those bitter clingers in flyover country should vote for the Democrats who have their best interests in mind, but instead are bamboozled into voting for Republicans, against their own interests. For people who claim to be on the side of the little people, Liberals are remarkably condescending towards anyone who doesn’t see the world their way.