Don’t overstate Wisconsin
There are reasons not to extract too many lessons from Gov. Scott Walker’s convincing victory in the Wisconsin recall election Tuesday. For one thing, he faced a weak opponent in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and for another, he vastly outspent Barrett to win by 7 percentage points. Most important, voters seemed to understand that a recall wasn’t the right remedy for Walker’s actions. As California was forced to learn the hard way, the recall is a better device for removing a governor who has engaged in misconduct than for punishing one over policy disagreements. In the end, some Wisconsin voters who disliked Walker’s gratuitous attack on collective bargaining no doubt voted to keep him because they felt uncomfortable with aborting his term in retaliation.
The money was surely a major factor. Walker, a Republican, spent more than $45 million — on top of “super PAC” money spent on his behalf — compared with roughly $18 million spent by his Democratic opponent. That’s a staggering sum of money for a relatively small state.
Finally, some of Walker’s support came from unlikely places: In a battle cast as conservatives against unions, more than a third of Walker’s backers identified themselves as members of union households. And even on a night when Walker carried a commanding majority, most of those who voted said they intended to vote for President Obama in the fall.
Those facts suggest that Wisconsin’s race may not be much of a bellwether for the November election, but others offer a reminder that it does indeed have resonance beyond the recall itself. Most significant, the results demonstrate a deep concern among many voters that public employee pensions form a pervasive threat to government budgets at all levels. That concern is by no means limited to Wisconsin. Indeed, voters in two of California’s largest cities, San Diego and San Jose, on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved ballot measures that would cut retirement benefits to public workers.
The California measures will certainly be challenged in court, as they seek to cut benefits to employees who already have earned them; stripping workers of what they’re owed is both unfair and usually illegal. What’s undeniable, though, is that their passage exposes voter unhappiness with what many see as extravagant benefits being paid even as public services are cut. What Wisconsin shows, then, is that there is danger for unions and Democrats in trying to protect too much. Reasonable accommodations to pension benefits may preserve collective bargaining in the face of an angry electorate; failure to make those changes may endanger the influence of public employee unions altogether.
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