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Six Myths About the Wisconsin Election

Elections may not change everything, but they certainly can change the way partisans spin. We’ve all seen it: Before the vote, both sides agree on its crucial importance. Afterward, the losing side declares it’s no big deal.

Last week, Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, beat back an attempt to remove him from office in the middle of his term. The political struggle since then has concerned the meaning of that vote -- and enveloped it in a series of myths.

Here are six of them:

1. Walker’s union-busting had nothing to do with the state budget. To hear Walker’s liberal critics tell it, the governor used the need to fix a budget hole as an excuse to go after public-sector unions. As Mother Jones magazine put it last year, “The unions are not to blame for the deficit, and stripping unionized workers of their collective bargaining rights won’t in and of itself save any money.” That’s why, according to those critics, calling an election to remove Walker from office early was justified: He had simply acted to weaken his political opponents.

No doubt, Walker did seek to weaken his adversaries by removing what he considers unjustified privileges that state law used to give them. But his labor-law reforms were also part of a budget strategy: The state would give less money to local governments and in return give them more power in bargaining with the unions. Local governments that have been able to take advantage of the new law -- because contracts expired after its passage -- have been able to avoid sharp cutbacks in services.

2. Money is what saved Walker from the recall. Walker and his allies outspent his opponents by a large margin -- and that’s the whole story of this race, says Glenn Thrush in Politico. Thrush didn’t count union spending in the race, which was considerable. But even if he was right, his logic would be off. Assuming that the side that spent more money won because of it risks reversing cause and effect. If Democrats, particularly the national Democratic Party, had thought they could win the race, they would have spent more money. President Barack Obama and his allies vastly outspent Senator John McCain and the Republicans in 2008, but that’s not why Obama won: He raised a lot more money than McCain because he was more popular, and was considered likely to win.

It’s one thing to worry about campaign contributions because the contributors might buy undue influence with officials. It’s less plausible to worry that voters are easily gulled by whichever side spends the most money -- especially in a race, like this one, where most voters held strong opinions about the issues for at least a year.

3. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United -- which affirmed the right of outside groups to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns -- rescued Walker. Greg Sargent, a liberal blogger for the Washington Post, claims that Walker’s victory “shows with crystal clarity that Republicans may very well be able to successfully use the new, post-Citizens United landscape to weaken the opposition in a structural way.”

Actually, Walker could legally receive unlimited contributions -- including from out-of-state contributors, one of his critics’ bugaboos -- before Citizens United. Before that decision, the Republican Governors Association would have had to run slightly different ads than they ran. But there’s no reason to think the decision had a significant effect on the recall race, much less a decisive one.

4. Walker’s win didn’t mean the public favored his labor reforms. Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of the Nation, posted a message on Twitter on election night saying the “laser focus on collective bargaining” had been “muted.” Other Walker critics have pointed to an Ohio referendum in which curbs on public-sector unions were defeated as evidence that an up-or- down vote on Walker’s reforms in Wisconsin would have yielded a different outcome.

But the Wisconsin law exempted police and firefighters, and their inclusion in the Ohio law was one of its opponents’ chief criticisms. Without that argument at hand, Wisconsin Democrats had trouble getting a majority of voters fired up about the reforms -- as Graeme Zielinski, a Democratic spokesman, admitted during the campaign. Exit polls found a small majority of voters approved of Walker’s reforms.

5. The vote has no implications for November. The exit polls showed Obama winning the state 51 percent to 44 percent, and Wisconsin hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. Obama supporters have been dismissing the idea that the state might go red this fall. The exit polls had a Democratic skew, however, and Michael Barone calculates a much closer matchup once it’s corrected. The state has clearly been tilting less to the Democrats over time. In this year’s election the state senate is expected to flip back to the Republicans. In that case, Wisconsin will have a Republican governor, at least one Republican senator and two Republican legislative chambers. It would be crazy for Obama to take the state for granted, and last week’s election ought to add to his worries.

6. Other Republican governors will follow Walker’s lead. On one point, it’s conservatives who may be deluding themselves. Many of them think that Walker’s triumph will now lead other Republican governors to emulate him. They may be overestimating that breed’s tolerance for criticism and controversy. A lot of Republican governors are going to look at Walker’s experience over the last two years and be glad he survived, but not eager to get themselves compared to Hitler or go through a recall campaign.

It’s still liberals who have most misinterpreted the recall campaign. Their last-ditch defense of public-sector-union privileges -- which President Franklin D. Roosevelt rejected as contrary to the public good -- couldn’t win the day in a state with as progressive a history as Wisconsin.

Democrats are trying very hard to avoid the implications of that fact.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

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