Goldberg: The folly of recall elections

Support for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
A worker at Quad Graphics shows her support during a campaign stop by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in Sussex, Wisconsin. Walker faces Democratic contender Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a recall election on June 5.
(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

It should surprise no one that I’m opposed to the recall of Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor whose fate will be decided Tuesday. But that’s only in part because I support what he’s been trying to do in the Badger State. I’m also against recalls as a matter of principle.

In 2003, I was one of the few conservatives opposed to the recall of Gray Davis, arguably the worst California governor in modern memory.

Davis didn’t deserve to stay in office, but the voters of California deserved to keep him. Democracy depends on accountability, not just for individual politicians but for their parties and programs.

As I noted in 2003, former New York Mayor Ed Koch summed up the principle nicely. During the disastrous tenure of his successor, David Dinkins, Koch was asked whether he would run again. Koch replied: “No! The people threw me out, and now the people must be punished.”


That logic applies even more for recalls. If California had had its fiscal reckoning in 2004 or 2005, the state — and the country — would be much better prepared to deal with its economic problems than it is now. The Democratic Party in general, and the public sector unions in particular, would have been held accountable for their manifest failures, and instead of replacing Davis with a nominal Republican, voters would have been given a clearer choice.

This isn’t to say that both parties deserve equal shares of blame. Davis’ successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least tried to break the union stranglehold on state government with his 2005 referendums. But he failed, thanks in no small part to the determination of government unions doing whatever it took to retain power. The California Teachers Assn., for example, spent $57 million defeating Schwarzenegger’s reforms, even mortgaging its headquarters in Sacramento for the effort.

There’s constant caterwauling these days about the need for Republicans to become more moderate, more socially liberal, more focused on pragmatic solutions to our country’s problems.

That’s what California had in Schwarzenegger, a proud Republican of the Nixon-Rockefeller persuasion, married to a Kennedy no less. And California voters chewed him up and spit him out, preferring to stay on the destructive course set by public sector unions and their interest group allies.


Wisconsin’s governor is no Schwarzenegger. Walker ran as a full-spectrum conservative promising to take on the political machine. “I was the original’tea party’in Wisconsin,” he declared in 2010. The effort to remove Walker from office is not an attempt to hold him accountable for his failures — as it was with Gray Davis — but to punish him for his successes.

Walker has turned a deficit into a projected surplus while cutting property taxes. The state economy seems to have turned a corner, posting modest job gains. His union reforms have proved sufficiently popular that his opponent in the recall, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, isn’t even talking about them anymore (perhaps because Barrett used the new laws to save his city millions).

Perhaps most telling, now that government workers aren’t forced to pay union dues, membership has dropped precipitously. The ranks of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employeeswere cut nearly in half in less than a year, according to the Wall Street Journal. What does it say when rank-and-file members don’t even think it’s worth paying the dues to belong?

Polls have Walker the narrow favorite Tuesday, but his opponents have made it clear they will do everything they can to win the ground game by getting voters to the polls. I am cautiously optimistic that voters of Wisconsin will see the folly of demanding a do-over at precisely the moment the state needs to stay the course.

I’m much less optimistic about California, whose problems today dwarf those of Wisconsin when Walker took office. Jerry Brown, who signed collective bargaining for government workers into law in 1978, could be the perfect Nixon-to-China politician to fix the state’s problems. But he’s proving unable or unwilling to rise to the challenge.

Still, if he fails, he shouldn’t be recalled. The people of California should be punished for their mistake. Perhaps they’ll learn from it and find their own Scott Walker the next time around.