Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Thoughts on Wisconsin: What Today Means and What It Doesn't

Today is recall day in Wisconsin. You knew that, though, didn’t you, Gentle Reader?

Let’s be very clear about this. I wouldn’t vote for incumbent Governor Scott Walker with the proverbial gun at my head. I think his economic policies are disastrous—the numbers actually prove that—and I’m reasonably convinced that he’s somewhere between mendacious buffoon and outright crook. His campaign has been full of falsehoods, both about his own record and about his opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. Whereas we know that PolitiFact shouldn't be taken as gospel, when 80% of their analyses of your statement are a Half True or worse, something is up. There are credible reports of massive vote suppression, if not by Walker himself, then at least by his supporters. About 75% of Walker’s campaign treasury comes from out of state, including a couple million from the Koch brothers. Walker has outspent Barrett by a ratio of (apparently) about 8:1, although I’ve seen even more lop-sided figures. It’s easy to trace this democratic disaster (whether it’s also a Democratic disaster remains to be seen) to Citizens United. The fact is, the problem isn’t in calling corporations “people”; it’s in calling money “speech.” But that’s a rant for another day.

Still, I need to say this, as well: the Barrett campaign (or its supporters) aren’t exactly lily-white, either, with allegations about what Walker did or didn’t do as an undergrad at Marquette—charges that would be meaningless if true, and I suspect that a reasonable percentage of them are not. About 2/3 of PolitiFact’s judgments on Barrett are Half True or worse. Moreover, confirmation bias becomes especially problematic in a case like this. I despise Walker’s politics, which makes it more likely that I’ll believe that he’s dishonest, as well.

What’s interesting about the story to me—apart from the result, which I confess I care rather more about than I do about most elections in jurisdictions in which I do not reside—is the media’s predictable inability to place the recall election in proportion. Even allegedly liberal sites like MSNBC are parroting nonsense about “reform-minded conservatives” against “organized labor.” Bullshit. One could as easily discuss “reform-minded liberals” against “corporate power.” In fact, that strikes me as a far more accurate description, but you won’t see that nomenclature anywhere in the corporate media.

Similarly, there are great prognostications about what the results will mean for November. The correct answer, of course, is “nothing,” or at least the next thing to it. Should Barrett pull off what now would be considered an upset, it wouldn’t mean that Americans in general, or even Wisconsinites, like Barack Obama’s policies more than Mitt Romney’s. It would mean only that 1). Wisconsin voters who sat on their hands when Walker was elected turned up at the polls this time, and/or 2). this particular corrupt politician was just a little too sleazy, even by today’s standards, to be endured, and/or 3). the Barrett campaign’s tactics—good and evil—paid off.

Conversely, if Walker is retained in office, it means that 1). an 8:1 spending advantage matters, and/or 2). enough people bought the reasoning that no one can govern effectively while constantly in election mode, and/or 3). the Walker campaign’s tactics—good and evil—paid off.

Walker is, if nothing else, a remarkably polarizing figure, and the race is likely to be very tight. Both sides are claiming that they have more people on their side if they could only get everyone to the polls. And it is certainly true that polling done by some pretty reputable firms suggests that the percentage of undecided voters is infinitesimal. That’s significant, especially since it really doesn’t matter who the Democratic nominee is. With all due respect to Mayor Barrett, this election is between Scott Walker and Not Scott Walker.

There are interesting other considerations, as well. Just because the notion of a recall is legal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. On the other hand, just because it’s unorthodox doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Is it appropriate to vote to recall a governor (as opposed to voting against him in the next regular election) for having different political views than you? Or are the alleged ethical transgressions sufficiently documented and sufficiently serious that removing the governor from office is a moral imperative?

I’m seeing lots of literature from the left suggesting that the Democrats, unions, etc., have “won” simply by having a recall election at all. That means, in short, they think there’s a good chance they’re going to lose. And the political calculus involved here is intriguing. I’m on the outside, but it would seem to me that in a state like Wisconsin, if you can’t win against the likes of Scott Walker, you’ve committed a terrible mistake in raising the issue and elevating the recall effort to such a magnitude. If you can’t show Wisconsinites, who backed Barack Obama over John McCain by nearly 14 points, that Scott Walker is a crook and an incompetent… well, it’s time to re-calibrate your policies, your message, and/or your delivery system. Or maybe just to shut up.

That is, whereas today’s vote tells us nothing at all about November, it will be treated as if it did. One side will be emboldened. The other side will leave with its tail between its legs, unconvincingly claiming some sort of psychological victory all the while. And the jabbering class will make a far bigger deal out of the results than they merit. All that said, there’s a lot of interest from outside the Land of the Cheeseheads in today’s results. I confess that I’m one of those interested parties. I just wish I could be more optimistic.

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