Political junkies are watching the June 5 recall election in Wisconsin very closely, but what about the rest of us? The subject of the recall campaign, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, is ahead in the polls and is looking like he'll survive. Democrats are now doing everything they can to convince voters that there's nothing here to see. But here are three good reasons why the recall election should matter to those of us who live outside of the Badger State:
Walker is proving that struggling states can turn their economies around, and that fiscal conservatism works.
Walker eliminated a $3.6 billion deficit and balanced the budget without raising taxes. He did it by asking public employees to contribute, like the rest of us do, to their healthcare costs and pension funds—a move which prevented teachers, firemen, and police from being laid off. Unemployment in Wisconsin is below 7 percent for the first time since 2008, and joblessness there is now below the national average. Plus Wisconsin's public employee retirement system is now fully funded. Unfunded pensions are a big deal in many states, and could cost taxpayers in many states millions in new taxes.
Reason Magazine and the Rupe Foundation recently polled Wisconsin voters and found overwhelming support for many of Walker's policies:
- 72 percent favor asking public sector workers to increase their pension contributions from less than 1 percent to 6 percent of their salaries.
- 71 percent favor making government employees pay 12 percent of their own healthcare premiums instead of the previous 6 percent.
- Police and firefighters were exempted from the pension and healthcare adjustments but 57 percent of taxpayers say they should not have been.
- 65 percent say public sector workers receive better pension and health care benefits than private sector workers.
- When asked what state and local officials should do if pensions and health benefits are underfunded, 74 percent favor requiring government employees to pay more for their own healthcare and retirement benefits. In sharp contrast, 75 percent oppose cutting funding for programs like education and 74 percent oppose raising taxes to help fund government worker benefits.
If Walker wins the recall, Wisconsin's fiscal policies could become a model for other states. People get this. They realize that fiscal responsibility is not extremist.
The recall election spells big trouble for unions, especially public employee unions.
When recall supporters first garnered nearly a million signatures in order to get on the ballot, the unions were ecstatic. They've poured millions into the state and bussed in thousands of volunteers, but as the issues in the race became clear, the union position came across as greedy and unreasonable. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told Politico that if Walker wins, it will be "a significant blow to the labor unions," and will definitely embolden other Republican governors to take on labor unions in battles over collective bargaining. There's a chance Democrats will win one of four state Senate recalls, which will give them control of the state Senate and a way to put the brakes on Walker. But no matter what happens in the Senate, Walker's success has already sparked a round of recriminations between union leaders and top-level Democrats, who are avoiding the state. Obama endorsed Walker's opponent the night he won the primary, but other than that has remained silent; the Democratic National Committee has refused to give the state party any money for the cause.
"I think this is a national campaign," the head of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Harold Schaitberger told The Hill. "Wisconsin is another important test to establish the tone and mood of what is to come in November." When asked about the DNC's support for the recall, another union official wasn't so happy either: "Labor has always been there for the national Democratic Party. The national Democratic Party should be there for labor in this instance. They're not." There's trouble in paradise.
The recall fight exposes the flaws in the Obama campaign strategy.
Here's how Kelly Steele, a strategist for We Are Wisconsin, the leading union-backed anti-Walker coalition put it a few months ago to Politico: "Scott Walker lied his way into office, and has since launched unprecedented attacks on Wisconsin's working families, dividing the state like never before," Steele said in an E-mail. "This historic recall is a ... victory for Wisconsinites united to take their government back from wealthy special interests who bought and paid for Scott Walker and are dictating the terms of his extreme agenda."
Sound familiar? Might as well be a page out of an Obama speech about Mitt Romney. Instead of defending the public employees unions' position, We Are Wisconsin's website now has talking points about the GOP "war on women." Good grief.
The left in Wisconsin is pitching an angry, populist message to voters. So is Obama. Rather than emphasizing fiscal responsibility coupled with a growing economy—which is what Walker is selling—the Obama campaign is also doubling down on voter anger. "I feel like they are overly relying on the have-nots out-voting the haves," one well-known Democrat close to the Obama campaign told Politico. "The economy has gotten a lot better for a lot of people. Instead of making those people feel good about growing businesses, the campaign seems to assume that angry people will prevail. There were successful business leaders in the 2008 coalition, who wanted to use their success to do good. We're losing that inspiration."
Scott Walker is a canary in a coal mine. If he wins, we'll know that at least one state's voters now view budget-balancing as something reasonable that needs to be done right. And we'll know how they feel about the unions' intransigence and angry rhetoric on entitlement reform. We'll all be watching that canary on June 5 to see if it flies.
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