Monday, March 14, 2011

How to lose by winning (Scott Walker method)

Half a world away from events in Libya, another strongman (this one elected) was flexing his muscle late last week. After a three-week impasse with a group of Democratic senators whose absence postponed his legislation, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, with the aid of GOP state senators, employed legalistic gymnastics to take a vote without the absent Democrats, and signed into law a bill that strips unions of collective bargaining rights on matters of pensions and health care, limits pay raises of public employees to the rate of inflation, and ends automatic collection of union dues by the state.

It was a devastating defeat for union members and Wisconsin’s progressive community in general, and — cruelest irony — it all went down in the state that practically birthed the concept of collective bargaining, unemployment compensation and other workers’ rights.

Walker was the sanctimonious soul of fiscal rectitude at the signing ceremony on Friday. "Some have asked whether this is going to set a national precedent," he said. "And I don't know ... but if along the way we help lead a movement across the state for true fiscal reform, true budgetary reform to ultimately inspire others across this country, state by state and in our federal government, inspire others to stand up and make the tough decision to make a commitment to the future so that our children across all states don't have to face the dire consequences we face because previous leaders have failed to stand up and lead, I feel that is a good thing."

Walker walks away a winner in this bout; you watch, it’s just a matter of time before someone floats his name as a presidential contender in 2012. But the governor’s victory, possibly contestable in the courts (that’s still being debated), requires compliance with the law of unintended consequences.

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It was one of the things that was most striking as you watched the daily protests inside the statehouse in Madison, Wisc., these last few weeks: Just like in the recent protests in Egypt, a sizable percentage of these protesters aren’t in the high-hormonal demographic of teenagers and young adults. They're families, with children; they're seniors, or citizens very nearly so. They run the gamut of the state’s population. They're police officers, state troopers, corrections officers, firefighters — the public employees most necessary to keep a society running.

Looked at collectively, the protesters form the very backbone of Walker’s constituency, many of whom almost certainly voted for him last November. In less than ten weeks, Walker has managed to alienate at least some of the people who elected him; many of them will be working against him now.

The next move against Walker is likely to be a broad drive to have him recalled. In a labor-conscious state like Wisconsin, where progressivism runs deep, that may be no idle threat. Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Time Magazine that recall-petition signatures amounting to 25 percent of the original election’s voters — about 540,000 signatures — were necessary to trigger the recall process, which couldn’t happen until at least next Jan. 3.

It’s worth more than a mention that on Saturday — the day after Walker signed the bill into law — more than 100,000 demonstrators showed up at the statehouse to welcome the return of the 14 Democratic senators whose stand on principle won’t be forgotten. You could probably just about bet those 100,000 people signed recall petitions, or they plan to.

And consider: Time’s Dawn Reiss reported that even “the threat of a recall — to Walker and his allies — could keep the governor in check. Democrats need to gain three seats in the state senate to win back control of the body; there are eight GOP senators who are now eligible for recall.” Sheila Harsdof, Randy Hopper, Luther Olsen, Robert Cowles, Alberta Darling, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich and Dan Kapanke better watch their backs.

Passions are high in Wisconsin, even in defeat. “It was pretty clear that the protests, as massive as they got, weren’t going to change the governor's mind,” Mayer told Time. “Even though they didn't succeed in getting what they wanted, they mobilized a lot of people and made this a salient issue. A protest doesn't have to succeed in its immediate goal to have a long-term impact."

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And that’s the other known unknown that’s dangerous to elected Republicans and the deep-pocketed corporate donors who help feather the nests of their campaigns: What’s been aroused in Wisconsin is about more than policy, it’s about principle. For the protesters and more besides, it’s about what you stand for.

To judge from the consistently passionate, engaged and generally peaceful protests of the last three weeks, what’s been awakened in Wisconsin is a new surge of populism on behalf of fundamental American workers’ rights — a populist passion that’s both immediately transferable to other states whose public employees face the same statehouse standoffs; and genuinely indigenous to the people of every particular state (unlike the Tea Party’s Astroturf DNA).

Count on unions such as AFSCME, SEIU and others to be the recipients of more small-donor donations from everyday citizens — the same “twos and fews” strategy of $25 and $50 donations and regular checking-account debits that fueled the grassroots economic engine of the Obama campaign in 2008.

Gov. Walker better savor the sweetness of this tough win. Considering the broad and building outrage  of Wisconsin voters who opposed him on a piece of legislation that dismantles the very labor history the state has prided itself on for generations, it may be the last big win he ever has as governor. The passion to save collective bargaining is every bit as exportable as the reach of collective bargaining itself — and the reach of those who would dismantle it. That fact may cost Walker his job in Madison; it’ll certainly complicate the Republicans’ drive for the White House next year.

Image credits: Walker: Associated Press. Wisconsin solidarity rally: AFSCME logo: AFSCME.

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