Bloomberg View: The Wisconsin Recall's Waste of Time

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker during his election-night rally at the Waukesha Expo Center in Waukesha, Wis. Photograph by Narayan Mahon/The New York Times via Redux

The recall is finally over. Who won? Political consultants, TV and radio stations flush with unexpected ad revenue, out-of-state conservative political advocates, and perhaps, future state budgets. As for losers, there’s Wisconsin taxpayers (out at least $16 million in election costs), public employee unions, out-of-state liberal political advocates, and you know, the spirit of democracy.

The actual candidates—Republican Governor Scott Walker and Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee—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 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. 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.

Still, 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. Now $63 million has been spent—most 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. 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 during the past year. 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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