Obama Can Ignore Wisconsin, Public Workers Can't

Illustration by 731; Photograph by Getty Images

What does Scott Walker’s win in Tuesday’s Wisconsin recall election mean for the rest of the country? Generalizing from Wisconsin can be a perilous exercise. The Badger State is a unique place: the birthplace of American Midwestern Progressivism and also the state that created the template for the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, a national law curtailing the power of unions. Wisconsin elected a socialist to Congress in 1910 and decades later it sent Joseph McCarthy to the U.S. Senate.

And, as has been pointed out, the implications of Walker’s win for this fall’s presidential election are difficult to determine. The Wisconsin results are clearly a big win for Republicans, and a big loss for unions, traditionally a huge Democratic constituency. But at the same time, 18 percent of those who voted for Walker also said they would vote for Obama. The exit polls don’t tell us enough to unpack that seeming contradiction. Discomfort with the use of the recall itself might have played a role: Some polls leading up the election found that, especially among undecided voters, there was a tendency to want to give Walker a full term before passing judgment on his record and a corresponding opposition to recalling him midway through his term.

But even if Walker’s win doesn’t shift the presidential race, there is a way it’s likely to be felt in other states and other statehouses. Wisconsin, along with all its other political quirks, is distinctive in that unlike most states its public pension fund is fully funded—the money set aside is enough to cover promised payouts to retirees. That only highlights the scale of Walker’s victory—in a place where the state government is not dealing with massive unfunded pension liabilities, Walker was able to run successfully against public sector workers and their demands.

This will almost certainly embolden state and local politicians elsewhere who are pushing for similar reforms—Republican governors Chris Christie in New Jersey and John Kasich in Ohio, but also Democrats such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. Yesterday San Jose, along with San Diego, overwhelmingly approved ballot measures cutting city workers’ retirement benefits—in San Jose’s case, for current workers as well as the newly hired. Regardless of what happens in November on the national stage, in other words, it’s only going to get tougher for public employees to hold on to their benefits.

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