Victory's Fathers

“Obama’s goose is cooked,” crowed Sarah Palin on Tuesday night. The former GOP vice presidential candidate added that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the GOP would “help lead the charge for the rest of the country.”

Palin wasn’t the only conservative commentator exhibiting triumphalism following the huge victory by Walker in the recall election. Nor was she the only pundit to exaggerate the effects of that victory. The fact is, Obama’s “goose” is no more cooked than it was before the recall election and it is by no means clear that there are any national lessons to be drawn from Walker’s  triumph.

A few observations along these lines:

1. Wisconsin was in play before the recall election and the GOP now has a slightly better chance to take the state in November as a result of that contest. But Wisconsin is still Obama’s race to lose. The most recent Marquette Law School poll from 5/26 shows Obama with an 8-point lead.

Michael Barone disputes these numbers, basing his analysis on the flawed exit polls from the recall election. He’s right that it is probably closer than the 6-point Obama lead the exits showed, but it is also probably true that the president maintains a small lead.

Even with the GOP enjoying significant momentum — electing a governor and a senator in 2010 while taking control of the state legislature for the first time in 14 years — there is a case to be made for what The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis calls “The Walker-Obama Voter”:

As I read it—and at the obvious risk of over-generalizing—they are swing voters who are, despite the difficult times we find ourselves in, in a grudging pro-incumbent frame of mind. They see that we’re climbing back out of a deep hole and they see no reason to replace the guy on the ladder at this moment.

All politics is local — or, at least, filtered through the lens of local politics and conditions. Walker’s victory, along with the campaign infrastructure that will now be transferred whole to Mitt Romney, gives a big psychological boost to Republicans. But all it does is give Romney a fighting chance and forces the president to commit more resources to the state than he was originally planning. These are significant developments, but one can’t underestimate the Democratic ground game in Wisconsin that has delivered for the party every presidential election since 1984.

2. The unions aren’t going anywhere. There has been a lot of hyperbole and overstatement about the “death” of public employee unions as a result of the recall vote. Or, at least, the beginning of the end of government unions. The recall election may result in a welcome reexamination of the efficacy of public employee unions — a concept that Franklin Roosevelt found appalling and even labor lion George Meany believed to be a terrible idea. But we aren’t likely to see a huge decline in union membership among state and local workers any time soon.

There are several reasons for that, but most prominently, civil service laws currently on the books in most states make public unions inevitable, if not desirable. Public unions grew out of the mid-twentieth century reformist movement that sought to break the power of big city and statewide machines that had a stranglehold on power. The reformists attacked the one thing that gave the machines monopoly power: patronage. The ability to control jobs at the state, city, county, and township level gave the machines a ready-made political army to contribute cash, work campaigns, and get-out-the-vote efforts at election time. The grateful worker was not only owned body and soul by the political boss; he was subject to the whims and political fortunes of the party in power.

Reformists changed this dynamic by passing civil service statutes that gave job security and independence to government workers. As City College’s Daniel DiSalvo points out, “[P]ublic employees gained nearly lifetime job security. This gave workers a long-term interest in their jobs and increased their capacity to express themselves collectively, thereby helping to make the unionization of public employees possible.”

The growth of government, partly fed by the growth of public unions, created a vicious circle where public employees spend lavishly on political campaigns, electing politicians who willingly grow government. This necessitates more government workers, leading to more dues money and increased political power through higher campaign contributions.

DiSalvo illustrates this process by examining the California Correctional Peace Officer Association and their efforts to get more prisons built:

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the CCPOA lobbied the state government to increase California’s prison facilities — since more prisons would obviously mean more jobs for corrections officers. And between 1980 and 2000, the Golden State constructed 22 new prisons for adults (before 1980, California had only 12 such facilities). The CCPOA also pushed for the 1994 “three strikes” sentencing law, which imposed stiff penalties on repeat offenders. The prison population exploded — and, as intended, the new prisoners required more guards. The CCPOA has been no less successful in increasing members’ compensation: In 2006, the average union member made $70,000 a year, and more than $100,000 with overtime. Corrections officers can also retire with 90% of their salaries as early as age 50. Today, an amazing 11% of the state budget — more than what is spent on higher education — goes to the penal system.

How do you beat this sort of naked aggression against the taxpayer? The Scott Walker reform that got the state of Wisconsin out of the business of collecting dues for the unions would seem to be the answer. Giving state workers a choice in whether to join a union resulted in a 45% drop in membership in Wisconsin public employee unions. Fewer members paying dues means smaller campaign contributions, which could trim the political power of the unions.

But where can this success be repeated? The one political lesson other reform-minded governors might draw from Wisconsin is not that challenging the unions is a great idea and the other 49 state executives should rush out and try it. Indeed, the opposite is true. “Even with this loss, Wisconsin’s voters have sent a clear message that attacks on workers’ rights will not go unchallenged,” said Gerald McEntee, the president of AFSCME. Most governors don’t want that kind of headache.

Walker survived — but so will public unions for the foreseeable future.

3. Obama, the left, and the unions will come back strong from this debacle. Using a boxing analogy, Obama and the left got socked in the jaw and have been given a standing eight count. But it’s still the early rounds, and the opposition has plenty of time to regroup, refocus, and come roaring back with a vengeance.

That’s the plan, anyway. And it starts with money. Despite the setback in Wisconsin, unions will still be spending upwards of $500 million in direct and in-kind contributions to elect Democrats in the fall, after spending $450 million in 2008. The Democratic campaign committees in the House and Senate are outraising their GOP counterparts. Fundraising for the presidential race will be more evenly matched than last time when Obama outspent John McCain by 4-1, but it’s far too early to believe that the Wisconsin victory will be a game changer in that regard. Walker outspent Barrett by 8-1, largely because he was able to get an early start in fundraising due to a quirk in Wisconsin election law and the fact that the Democrats stupidly split their resources in an unnecessary primary campaign. That advantage is not going to carry over to the general election which will make Democrats much more competitive.

Laughably, many Democrats are whining about the fundraising imbalance — something they were strangely silent on in 2008 when President Obama raised $750 million, swamping the McCain campaign. They will dig deep to try to match the spending coming from conservative Super PACs with an increased effort of their own to fund liberal groups. While Romney dealt a surprise to Obama in May by outraising him $76.8 million to around $60 million, the president still has a large advantage in total money raised. Adding the May fundraising to the numbers from the end of April, Romney has raised about $175 million to Obama’s $277 million. That gap will probably narrow, but Obama has far more cash on hand. This is to be expected since Romney had a competitive primary contest. But for the next crucial months, the president can spend lavishly while Romney must slowly build his organization and gather resources for the push this fall.

A final thought: The Walker victory had many fathers, while the Democrats’ defeat had only one orphan: poor, lonely President Obama. He is the leader of the party and could have unleashed a nationwide effort from Democrats in the last month of the campaign and put his prestige on the line by visiting the state to gin up enthusiasm and support for the Democratic candidate Tom Barrett. Either he miscalculated what was at stake or he feared he had more to lose than gain with such an effort. Both explanations reveal a lack of courage and foresight on the president’s part. His inaction has depressed his party and put a charge in Republicans.

There is still time to rectify his mistake. But with five months to go before Election Day, Obama may very will learn to regret this blunder.