Wisconsin’s Pointless Recall Vote Shifts Focus to Jobs

Wisconsin’s contentious gubernatorial recall is finally over, and it’s clear who won: political consultants, TV and radio stations flush with unexpected ad revenue, out-of-state conservative political advocates and, perhaps, future state budgets.

And we know who lost: Wisconsin taxpayers (out at least $16 million in election costs), public employee unions, out-of- state liberal political advocates and, well, the spirit of democracy.

As for the actual candidates -- Republican Governor Scott Walker and Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee -- they will go back to the jobs they’ve had since Walker defeated Barrett the first time around, in November 2010. The difference is that they return exhausted and distracted, tarred by scandal, facing a severely polarized electorate and a shortened timeline in which to accomplish anything of substance before the next election cycle.

Recall elections have their place: generally, in cases of serious breaches of the public faith or morality, or of extreme incompetence. The effort to recall Walker, however, stemmed from a political disagreement over his support for a law that, among other things, limited the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector employees.

We have mixed feelings about the legislation. It’s vital that state employees make a more reasonable contribution to their health-care plans. Yet since 2009, 42 other states have enacted some sort of pension reform without laws like Wisconsin’s; Michigan, Rhode Island and Utah in particular have shown that compromise and tough negotiating by elected officials can stem runaway benefit costs. We also think Walker should have been more straightforward about his intentions, which he failed to mention during the 2010 campaign.

That said, the law was a legitimate act of democratic politics. State Democrats, union leaders and their supporters should have set their minds to building public support for statehouse elections and the 2014 race for governor. Instead, they threw a yearlong temper tantrum, in which Democratic lawmakers fled to Illinois in an attempt to block a vote on the law; Madison, the capital, became the site of ugly demonstrations; a state Supreme Court justice was nearly recalled; and several Republican state senators lost their jobs. Now $63 million has been spent -- most of it by groups from outside the state -- in an ultimately futile attempt to take back an honest election.

Here’s the telling detail: In all the tumult, the collective bargaining law became an afterthought. Polls show the majority of Wisconsinites support limiting collective bargaining, Barrett barely mentioned the law in the campaign’s final weeks, and exit polls Tuesday indicated that some voters who said the law was a mistake nonetheless found the recall unjustified. Remember also that Barrett soundly defeated the unions’ preferred Democratic candidate in a May 8 primary. Union membership in the state has plummeted: Ranks of the state’s second-largest public-sector union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, fell by more than half from March 2011 to February 2012, in part because under the new law the state no longer deducts dues from workers’ paychecks.

What started out as an election focused on union rights turned into a referendum on Walker’s promise to create a quarter-million jobs by 2014. Barrett jumped on federal data showing a loss of 21,400 nonfarm positions over the last year. Walker, in turn, promoted state figures showing a gain of 23,321 in 2011. (As Bloomberg View columnist Edward Glaeser has pointed out, although Walker’s numbers are probably more accurate, a governor has almost no control over these sorts of short-term economic trends.)

The Wisconsin vote, we are told, will be an augury of the presidential election in November. If so, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney won’t have a hard time deciphering the entrails: It’s all about jobs.

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