When Governor Scott Walker took on labor unions in his budget fight with Democrats earlier this year, he got more of a controversy than he bargained for. Not only did the unions agree to cuts, meaning that limiting their collective bargaining rights was not required to deal with the budget shortfall, but Democratic lawmakers left the state to deny the Wisconsin Senate a quorum to pass the bill as a budget bill.
The Republicans could have (and in retrospect I suspect they wish they would have) right away separated it as a provision standing on its own and passed it, but that would make it clear that it wasn’t necessary to handle the budget crisis and be an overt admission that the goal was to punish and weaken unions. Instead they decided to criticize the Democratic Senators for not doing their job, and try to pressure them to return to Madison.
The Democrats and labor unions used the resulting delay in passing the law to mount massive protests. This got scathing criticism from Governor Walker and Wisconsin Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, who not only ridiculed the Democrats, but fined them, stopped their staff from being able to use office equipment like capital photocopiers, and ratcheted up the rhetoric. The Democrats responded by trying to play “Wisconsin nice,” saying they were seeking compromise and respectful dialogue. They said they left in order to force some time for discussion about the measure.
Frustrated, the Republicans wore their anger on their sleeves as Democrats mounted protests and put pressure on the Governor to compromise. He refused to back down, and this gave the Democrats time to motivate their base and to paint Scott Walker as someone unreasonable, so focused on fighting unions that he refused to engage in dialogue and discussion. A prank phone call and leaked e-mails made the situation worse. Ultimately, the Republicans separated out the union portion of the bill so they could pass it, and the Democrats came back. Because the GOP passed the bill quickly, not following Wisconsin open meeting laws (so the Democrats maintain), the law is now in limbo, held back from being made law until legal proceedings move forward.
On Tuesday the Republicans paid a huge price for their refusal to compromise and their inept handling of the crisis. Joanne Kloppenburg defeated incumbent David Prosser for a seat as justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Prosser, a moderate and respected Republican was Chief Justice and apparently coasting to re-election when the budget/union controversy hit. Unable to stop the bill from being passed, Democrats turned their sites on a valuable alternative — defeating a conservative Supreme Court justice and shifting the balance of power from 4-3 in favor of conservatives on the court to 4-3 in favor of liberals.
Kloppenburg won by a margin of only 204 votes meaning a recount is certain and it’s possible (though not likely) that Prosser could still eek out a win. Still, without this controversy Prosser’s victory would have been a foregone conclusion. Instead loads of money flowed into both sides of the campaign and it became a test of Governor Walker’s actions. To be sure, Prosser got a lot of support from people who disagreed with Walker — 30 years in state politics as a respected legislator then Judge earns support and respect — but that only makes the victory more significant. It shows that the Democrats in Wisconsin are motivated, and the Republicans may have over-estimated their power when Governor Walker and Senator Fitzgerald took on this fight.
There will likely be recall elections later this summer trying to replace Senators on both parties, and it will be interesting to see how those play out. But clearly losing Prosser’s seat on the court and the conservative majority was not a price Governor Walker expected to pay for his uncompromising effort to weaken unions. Democrats now feel they have the wind at their back heading into 2012, as well as a court more friendly to legal efforts to fight the law.
One can argue that a Supreme Court justice race is the wrong place for such symbolic politics to play itself out. Perhaps, but once you make something an elected position the only real goal is to motivate voters, and in this case the union controversy overshadowed arguments on legal credentials.
Democrats can find hope that there is still a base out there that can be motivated and get out the vote. The Republicans may be over reaching not only in Wisconsin but in other states and in Washington. The public didn’t elect them to get tea party policies implemented, but out of dissatisfaction with Democratic policies and President Obama’s first two years. Republicans in Wisconsin rode a wave to large victories in November but find themselves on the defensive in April. Political winds shift suddenly.
Republicans nation wide can take solace that this is only in Wisconsin, and is taking place early in 2011. But the message is clear: push too hard and be too intransigent and the public can turn on you quickly. The same voters who overwhelmingly voted Democratic in 2008 aren’t suddenly tea partiers whose “eyes were opened” by Obama’s policies. Most independents don’t like extremes left or right, the center is still where the votes are in the American electorate.
National Democrats will find it easier to play for the center in the next year and a half. They can’t get anything passed anyway, so pushing for some major controversial reform makes no sense at this point. If they make some strategic compromises, and if the Republicans find themselves unable to resist tea party pressure, the pendulum of politics may swing back in their favor in 2012. This adds to the pressure on Speaker Boehner to show that the Republicans are not ideological extremists — Americans want pragmatic problem solving, and independents prefer that the parties work out compromises. They’ll reward those they trust not to be too extreme.
The lessons from Wisconsin will no doubt be debated and analyzed by both parties in coming months. One thing is clear: the 2012 elections will certainly offer another fascinating and exciting episode of political drama.
UPDATE: It appears the incumbent may have eeked out a victory after all. New votes were found for Prosser in the strongly GOP Milwaukee suburbs, meaning that the fight probably did not cost the Republicans the balance of power in the state Supreme Court. Still, the fact it was this close underscores the volatility of American politics at this juncture!