With Wisconsin’s epic state senate recall battle now over, the results carry a clear message that ought to resonate all the way to Washington – and especially the Obama White House. The essence of politics in America today, for Democrats at least, is to understand and communicate the political nature of the opposition. Having suffered a bad beating last November, the Wisconsin Democrats and their allies have succeeded in building a strong movement that fights back explicitly against the right-wing policies of Gov. Scott Walker’s Republican Party.
Last week they won two out of six recall campaigns mounted against GOP state senators which was widely interpreted as a defeat or at best a draw. But on Tuesday they won all three recall efforts against Democrats, giving them an overall series victory, and cutting deeply into perceived support for the Walker agenda. A third seat would have been turned over from the Republicans to Democrats, but for a thousand votes or so in a single senate district – or but for a profusion of ballot-counting irregularities that alleged benefited Republicans in a single big county.
To hear the Republicans and their supporters crowing, you wouldn’t know they had held onto control of the state senate by only a single vote. So it is clear that the governor remains vulnerable to recall himself – which must be why he now sounds more like the bipartisan, reasonable, constructive Republican, the very scarce kind that President Obama has pursued so long and so fruitlessly.
On the day after his party forfeited two state senate seats – matching the total number of elected officials recalled in Wisconsin’s entire history – Walker told reporters that he realized voters “want us to do more working together” and that he would henceforth focus on “jobs” (with no mention of his previous union-busting initiatives). Surely he is also concerned with his own plummeting poll numbers, which show a profound sense of buyer’s remorse among Wisconsin independent voters, as well as the continued determination of the state’s progressives and unions to remove him from power. And if the results of the recall elections of the past two weeks have encouraged him to reconsider the confrontational attitude he displayed during his first six months in office, so much the better.
But what do the Wisconsin results mean to President Obama, whose gauzy dream of a “post-partisan” era in Washington have been so bitterly dashed by the rise of the Tea Party? In a battleground state that could go either way next year – and that went sharply rightward last year – the progressive Democratic mobilization over the past six months has been nothing short of remarkable.
Consider that Wisconsin has only seen twenty or so recall elections over the past century, and that of those elections only two have previously resulted in the recall of an incumbent. Consider that incumbents generally have a powerful advantage in any election, especially an off-year recall. Consider further that only a few months ago, the Republicans used their majority to pass a highly restrictive voter ID bill that probably suppressed the vote of Democratic-leaning constituencies, including low-income families, elderly Medicare and Social Security beneficiaries, ethnic minorities, and students.
And finally consider the lukewarm attitude of the Obama White House toward the Wisconsin struggle, despite the president’s past vow to “walk the picket line” in defense of workers’ rights. Although the Obama political operation was reported to be lending help to the Democratic recall effort, there wasn’t much visible support from the president or his surrogates.
Perhaps it would have been inappropriate for the president to involve himself directly in a campaign against state officials. But whether he ought to have spoken out or not, there are still two profound lessons for him in this outcome.
The first lesson is that bipartisanship seems to be encouraged among Republicans these days only when they suspect that voters may be sick of their extremism. Just as Walker is now worried about his future, so is Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has suddenly realized that he prefers cooperation over confrontation over collective bargaining – evidently because he fears the results of a potential repeal referendum on the issue in November.
The second lesson is that there is only one way to instill such fear among Republicans, in Wisconsin or Washington: By demonstrating the will to push back, as hard as necessary, on behalf of the principles Democrats have always promised to uphold. That is what the Republicans do with great consistency on behalf of their own ideology, however extreme or unpopular. That is what inspired the Democrats who have fought them to a standstill in Wisconsin. And that is what could still save Obama’s presidency.