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.