Forget the recall, Wisconsin

Wisconsinites may not have much use for advice from an out-of-state news organization, but coming from a place that has undergone its own share of political troubles as a result of recall elections, we humbly submit this counsel to Badger State Democrats who are launching a recall drive against Gov. Scott Walker: Don’t do it.

Walker’s election in 2010 was among the most polarizing of the political shifts of that tumultuous year, when anger over the struggling economy fueled the tea party movement and Republicans pushed out Democratic incumbents nationwide. His attempt to destroy public employee unions rather than negotiate with them to reduce his state’s budget deficit were unnecessary and extreme, and understandably prompted a furious response from unions and Democratic Party leaders. But targeting a governor for recall just because you disagree with his policies is a terrible idea. We know.

When California experienced serious budget problems in 2003, Republicans mounted a recall drive against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. He was guilty of no misconduct and had done nothing to betray the public trust, yet Davis failed to provide much leadership during tough financial times and, fatally, he allowed the state’s vehicle license fee (better known as the “car tax”), which had been slashed in 1999, to revert to its former level, irking California voters who saw this as a tax hike. Davis was recalled and voters elected Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, a popular movie star with no government experience who immediately ended the car tax increase while proposing nothing to make up for the lost revenue.

Recall drives like California’s, and the one Wisconsin Democrats plan to start circulating petitions for on Nov. 15, render meaningless the notion that voters elect governors to serve a set term. Recalls make it nearly impossible for state leaders to get anything done because they go into campaign mode rather than legislating mode. They worsen partisanship and, Davis’ recall notwithstanding, they are usually a waste of time and money (an effort by Wisconsin Democrats to end the Republican majority in the state Senate via recall has already failed, with four of six GOP incumbents keeping their seats). And populist outrage doesn’t necessarily lead to positive reform. Schwarzenegger may not have been a worse governor than Davis, but he was hardly a better one, with his tenure marked by political paralysis and continual budget deficits stemming from the loss of $4 billion in annual car-tax revenue.

Elections have consequences, and sometimes your side loses. Recalls are a useful tool when a politician commits misconduct, but that’s not the case in Wisconsin. Democrats should accept that and move on.