Wisconsin: Bellwether or Just a Blip?

Paul Greenberg

6/8/2012 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

You hear the band strike up and play it at least once during every Democratic national convention: "Happy Days Are Here Again." It's been the party's theme song since FDR swept the presidential election of 1932. ("Happy days are here again/ The skies above are clear again...")

But after Wisconsin's recall election that didn't recall its Republican governor, the Democratic anthem lacks its old bounce. And it's the Republicans who are ready to sing, probably "On, Wisconsin!"

Not only did the GOP's Scott Walker fend off a recall, he turned it into ringing endorsement of his first two years in the governor's office, winning by a larger percentage of the vote than received two years ago against the same, losing Democratic opponent.

Scott Walker won this election the best way -- by deserving to win. By fulfilling his campaign promise to put that state's budget on an even keel, and sticking to his guns. He did it despite the opposition's attempt to thwart his reforms at every turn in every way, including mass demonstrations and a walk-out of Democratic legislators.

Gov. Walker managed to turn the projected state deficit of $3.6 billion he inherited into a projected surplus of $154 million. Quite a turnaround. The kind definitely not in the offing for the U.S. government under its current chief executive.

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How did he do it? Mainly by cutting back on the exorbitant pay and benefits the unions were extracting from his state's taxpayers.

B.W. (Before Walker), members of the powerful public service unions in Wisconsin were paying less than 1 percent of their salary -- in some cases, absolutely nothing -- toward their generous pensions, and only 6 percent of their paychecks to cover their health-care benefits.

Now, even A.W. (After Walker), most of those employees still pay only 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions and up to a maximum of 12.6 percent for their health-care premiums. Which means they're still doing better than the average worker out in the real world, aka the private sector.

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No wonder Wisconsin's workers are opting out of their public employee unions in droves -- now that they can. Governor Walker's reforms made union membership a choice instead of an obligation. That's no small saving for, say, a teacher in one of the Madison suburbs, who now can take home an extra $1,100 a year by not having her salary docked for the union's benefit. And then, adding insult to rake-off, having to watch the union spend that money on political maneuvers like this recall.

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It would be easy to make too much of these election results in Wisconsin. A single election in a single state is scarcely a harbinger of results nationwide in this year's presidential election. Especially since Wisconsin has gone Democratic in presidential elections for decades now, and this vote was about a Republican governor and his reforms, not directly about a Democratic president and his travails. This is just another straw in the wind.

But enough of these straws can add up to a mountain. Wisconsin's going for Scott Walker this week could be indicative -- the way Scott Brown's winning "Ted Kennedy's seat" in the U.S. Senate in hyper-blue Massachusetts proved indicative of things to come nationally in 2010. But it's a long, long way from June to November, especially in presidential politics.

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Perhaps sensing the outcome in Wisconsin, Barack Obama stayed far, far away, sending only a perfunctory tweet on behalf of the Democratic candidate for governor, now twice defeated by Scott Walker.

The president played it safe, choosing not to risk his diminishing prestige by wading into this fight. Instead, he dispatched the ever-game Bill Clinton as a surrogate. And once again the old boy worked his magic, presiding over another Democratic defeat.

Bill Clinton's popularity seems to have grown since he's been out of the White House for years now, and memories of his scandal-specked years there have faded. But that popularity hasn't proved transferrable. His tendency to talk informally, always at length, and even let some inconvenient truths out of the bag didn't help him with the powers that uneasily be in his party. This time he mentioned Mitt Romney's sterling career in private investment, breaking with the party line. Much like Newark's outspoken mayor, Cory Booker, he had to be disciplined for straying off the reservation, and had to back off. But will he learn his lesson? He's just come out for retaining the Bush tax cuts a while longer.

Various of his supporters say Barack Obama's one remaining strategy in this presidential election, as his promises about the economy have gone unfulfilled, is to pull a Harry Truman and just give the Republicans hell. But those of us who knew Harry Truman know this president is no Harry Truman. As he's just demonstrated again by dodging this fight in Wisconsin, content to hold Bill Clinton's coat while that loyal Democrat took the shellacking.

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"This is what democracy looks like." That was the cry of those who moved into Wisconsin's state Capitol not too long ago, aiming to tie its elected governor and the rest of its state government into knots.

But this week it was the Republicans who could say this is what democracy looks like -- a great outpouring of voters in an orderly election making their own decisions, thank you, at the ballot box and not in the streets. The only thing they occupied was the polling places.

The outcome of Tuesday's vote in Wisconsin was another heartening sign for the health of the two-party system and democracy in general in this country. The political pendulum is still swinging back since the heady days when Barack Obama was going to keep unemployment below 8 percent and stop the ocean waves while he was at it.

That pendulum will surely swing back again, but for now it's Republicans who are hoping that happy days are here again.