Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin retained his gubernatorial seat in a high-profile, hard-fought recall election on Tuesday, a victory increasingly predicted with some certainty by those across the political spectrum as voting day drew near. There are several lessons to be taken from the balloting -- for conservative forces that already are crowing about their triumph, and for moderates and liberals who must adjust their policies to fit what is emerging as the new norm in partisan politics at the state level.
The reality of Tuesday's vote is that Walker scored a decisive victory. He retained office by a large margin. That will encourage like-minded governors and state legislators across the nation to pursue the same sort of scorched-earth policies that prompted the recall. Moderates and liberals who prefer compromise and negotiation to hardball politics now have to accept the fact that those options are no longer viable -- even in a perennially progressive state like Wisconsin. Confrontation, not discussion, is now the right's preferred course of action.
Democrats and their progressive allies must also accept that big -- really big -- money will play a significant role in 2012 state and national elections. The Citizens United ruling opened the spigot for big-money donations. Wisconsin is one of the first examples of the pernicious effect that decision will have on elections around the nation.
Millions and millions of out-of-state dollars poured into the state during the recall campaign. Most of it -- a great deal from ultra-conservatives like the Koch brothers and other extreme right-wing donors -- went to Walker. A much smaller amount went to his Democratic opponent. The lesson is clear: Given the new rules, the really rich will spend to support ultra-conservative candidates and their cozy business causes.
Progressives and liberals are unlikely to generate such largesse. They will have to wage their political battles with a considerable monetary disadvantage until campaign finance reform is addressed.
The Walker triumph offers another important lesson for progressives and liberals -- if they will learn it. The governor and his ilk have a well-established plan to establish political primacy in the United States. They are not content to follow traditional roads to power. They want to change the way power is obtained and used.
Part of larger effort
The recall was forced after Walker used his authority to arbitrarily reduce the role and power of public unions in Wisconsin by stripping them of collective bargaining rights. He said it was necessary to balance the state's budget. Truth is, his evisceration of public unions is part of a broadening GOP/corporate effort -- articulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded front for expanding pro-business legislation -- to undermine a long-time Democratic base of support.
That's part-and-parcel of Republican strategy. Parties can win elections by keeping supporters of the opponent away from the polling station. Republicans are proving that by passing harsh rules on voter identification and registration, as most GOP-controlled legislatures, including Tennessee, already have done.
Another way to accomplish the task is to undercut an opponents' traditional base of support. In the case of Democrats, that includes unions -- the most visible target of Walker's actions.
To counter the new GOP strategy, Democrats will have to expand their reach beyond traditional bases of support and court middle-of-the-road swing voters. They failed to do so in Wisconsin, though late minute strategy changes seemed to attract moderates into the Democratic camp.
Another important lesson from Tuesday's primary is that what might appear to be a political truism is not necessarily so. The Walker-conservative triumph, while notable, was not all-encompassing. Analysis of the numbers indicates a shaky foundation in some areas.
More than half of Tuesday's voters -- even those who voted for Walker -- said they were disgusted by the recall and the process that led to it. That suggests that confrontational, scorched-earth politics is not always a sure-fire way to win adherents. More importantly for Democrats and the coming presidential election, exit polls indicated that the same electorate that supported Walker and his lieutenant governor against the recall also gave a large lead to President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. There's a meaningful lesson in that number, too.
Conservatives might claim Walker's victory is a portent of victory in presidential, national and state elections later this year, but that is over-reaching. Tuesday's results had more to do with issues specific to Wisconsin than national issues. Still, a case can be made that the recall election offered an important insight into the coming national campaign, especially on the Republican side.
Walker's victory is apt to prompt the GOP to continue pursuit of political policies that purposefully attempt to polarize many voters and to disenfranchise others. Those policies, however, offer no meaningful solutions to the economic and social problems that confront the nation. Republicans risk their political capital if they do not broaden their appeal.
Most Americans rightly want a political arena in which there is mutual respect between opposing sides and in which discussion, negotiation and compromise -- not demagoguery -- lead to legislative solutions rather than interminable deadlock. Most, including many who proudly call themselves conservatives, also prefer a system that minimizes the undue influence of money on politics. If the Walker campaign is any indication, the GOP currently isn't inclined to meet those reasonable criteria. If that continues, Republicans and conservatives might be in a surprise in November.