Scott Walker, Big Cheese — 11 June, 2012

Bill O’Reilly asked a provocative question last week.  Speaking with a pair of Democratic strategists about Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election, he asked, “Why did Walker have more money than [Democratic challenger] Tom Barrett?”

Indeed.  One of the Democrats’ main talking points in the aftermath of the 53-47 shellacking was that it was an unfair fight – Walker had seven times as much money as Barrett, and the money made the difference.  They blame it on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the 2010 campaign finance case which liberals hate so much, because it supposedly opens the floodgates to tons of corporate money to “buy” elections.  So O’Reilly pointedly asks, “Why did Walker have so much money?”

In the first place, the money difference was not so great as reports suggest.  According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the difference was more like 2.5-1.  Still, the question remains, why the difference?

One thing is sure: it was not due to Citizens United.  If anything, that ruling helped the unions more than Walker, because they were able to funnel money to Wisconsin to help unseat him.  The AFL-CIO, AFSCME, the government employees’ union, the national teachers’ unions, together contributed millions to the effort – contributions that would not have been legal before Citizens United.  

As for Walker, the vast majority of his financial support came in the form of individual donations, rather than corporate money.  Some of these contributions were indeed sizable – donations of $250,000 or more from the likes of the Koch brothers, AMWAY CEO Dick DeVos, Gingrich donor Sheldon Adelson, and so forth.  But these donations would all have been perfectly legal before Citizens United.  

The large individual donations do illustrate one way in which the deck was stacked in Walker’s favor.  Wisconsin election law specifically places no cap on the amount that can be contributed to an office-holder facing a recall election; presumably this is one of the ways in which incumbents write the laws to favor self-preservation.  Barrett, as challenger, was held to a $10,000 per person limit, and he could only start to raise money in the last month before the vote itself, once he had won the primary contest.

So clearly, as far as individual contributions go, Walker did indeed have a huge advantage.  Still, the anti-reform forces brought on this fight; they are the ones clamoring for Walker’s recall.  If they didn’t think it through before they started, that’s hardly Walker’s fault.  And this only refocuses the question: if individual donations to the Democratic effort were so limited, where were the big-money organizations?

It’s not like they lack funds.  Of the fifteen largest campaign contributors in the last twenty-plus years, nine are unions.  So the money is there, and thanks to Citizens United, the unions were able to use it.  And it was no secret that Walker’s camp was pulling in record breaking amounts of money for a recall election.  Yet, the union bosses and various liberal PACs chose not to match the money coming in to support Walker.  Again, why?

It’s highly unlikely that this was a tactical sacrifice – that they were saving their money for a more consequential fight later.  The Walker recall effort was mortal combat for public employee unions.  If Walker was allowed to overturn long-standing union privileges in Wisconsin – the state that pioneered the unionization of public workers – without an effective challenge, it would embolden similarly-minded governors across the country to embark on similar reforms.  As the loud protests of February 2011 attested, Wisconsin was Ground Zero in the fight over public unions and their privileges.

It is possible that the liberals deliberately chose not to spend big in Wisconsin because they didn’t think it would be determinative.  Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, the head of the Democratic National Congressional Campaign, maintained until the end that Wisconsin would be a test of their “ground game” – the ability to contact supporters and get them to the polls.  Perhaps they figured that would compensate for the money disadvantage.  If that is the case, however, they can’t now bemoan their strategic mistake and blame it on the Republicans.

But I think the stronger reason is this: despite how critical this election was to the future of public employee unions in America, this election was lost weeks before voting day, and they knew it.  Here’s my evidence:

First, Barrett was not the unions’ choice candidate to challenge Walker.  That was Kathleen Falk, but despite union support in a contest supposedly about union collective bargaining rights, she lost to Barrett.  That was a clear sign that union power had crested.

Secondly, the issues about Walker’s union reforms barely came up in the actual campaign.  Barrett instead focused on entirely secondary issues, like whether Walker’s policies had been good for job creation, or whether an aide from his pre-governor days had been implicated in some impropriety.  These are the kind of thing that regular elections address; none of them rose to the level of shortcoming that warranted recall. Many voters understandably wondered, what’s the fuss about?

Thirdly, Walker’s reforms worked.  Wisconsin’s state finances went from a $3.6 billion deficit to a $154 million surplus in the space of a two years without a tax increase; local governments as well were able to save tens of millions by the flexibility the new rules allowed, such as freeing them from having to use union-related health care providers; property tax rates declined; businesses began to rank Wisconsin as one of the most favorable environments in the Midwest.  In light of all that, even some union workers voted against the recall.

Finally, government workers have been leaving the unions in droves.  The most critical of Walker’s reforms had to do with dues collection: unions could no longer have dues deducted for them from workers’ paychecks, but rather had to ask their members to write a check.  In just one year, the teachers’ union membership fell by a third, and the larger AFSCME by over one-half.  It brings to mind the prisoners streaming out of the Bastille.

So this election, which started with such emotion in the ferocious protests and the occupation of the Madison capital building fifteen months ago, ended with a whimper.  The losing side is left with nothing other than to complain weakly, “no fair!”

Personally, I think this is the beginning of the end of the government union, and I think it has large implications for the bigger issues in this country.  If you look at the states that have successfully addressed the intractable budgetary issues they are facing, they tend to be led by Republicans: Wisconsin, New Jersey, Indiana, Ohio.  Those states still floundering in a fiscal mudslide are not just led by Democrats but have suffered under Democratic rule for decades: California, Illinois, and so forth.

President Obama ought to pay attention.

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