People I talked to in Wisconsin say that Scott Walker isn’t an ideologue as much as he is a politician. He was seen as a moderate in the Legislature, working with left-leaning types on some issues. He saw a moment to “change Wisconsin” by breaking the public employee unions that help fund the Democratic side, and armed with the legislative numbers, he took it. He wasn’t prepared for a backlash, and most important, he should have taken the concession he was able to extract from the unions on pension and health care contributions and ended it there. He would have been able to declare victory, and could always have gone back to collective bargaining at another point, if the local unions didn’t adhere to the same compromise. But running past the compromise has put Walker into a box. It was a major mistake.
What could be the case is that Walker is something of an ideologue when it comes to unions. He used layoffs as a strategy as Milwaukee county executive to extract concessions from unions years earlier. His entire history is filled with union fights. Maybe he thought the ground was fertile to end public union participation permanently. The risk was great but so was, and still could be, the reward.
This could still end up working out for him. Recall elections aren’t entirely easy, and even ideologues can survive them. If the economy improves by 2014, he could win re-election, and even if he doesn’t, he’ll have some sinecure waiting for him at Heritage or AEI, with the moniker of “the man who tried to stop the unions” affixed to him (and on the right that’s a badge of honor). A lot depends on that economic outlook and how the progressive groups working in Wisconsin can leverage their opportunity.
Still, for now it’s clear that Walker’s gambit has backfired in the court of public opinion. If the election between Walker and Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett were held today, Barrett would win 52-45, mainly because Walker is losing Republican union voters.
The difference between how folks would vote now and how they voted in November can almost all be attributed to shifts within union households. Voters who are not part of union households have barely shifted at all- they report having voted for Walker by 7 points last fall and they still say they would vote for Walker by a 4 point margin. But in households where there is a union member voters now say they’d go for Barrett by a 31 point margin, up quite a bit from the 14 point advantage they report having given him in November.
It’s actually Republicans, more so than Democrats or independents, whose shifting away from Walker would allow Barrett to win a rematch if there was one today. Only 3% of the Republicans we surveyed said they voted for Barrett last fall but now 10% say they would if they could do it over again. That’s an instance of Republican union voters who might have voted for the GOP based on social issues or something else last fall trending back toward Democrats because they’re putting pocketbook concerns back at the forefront and see their party as at odds with them on those because of what’s happened in the last month.
Union voters are looking to their pocketbooks again. If you delved deeper in this poll, I’d bet that most of that swing comes from public safety officials, the ones Walker “exempted” from bargaining restrictions. That gambit has totally failed, and driven police and firefighters into the corner of the protesters.
The proxy fight races coming up in Wisconsin – which I have previously discussed – will go a long way to determining whether the movement can continue to make Walker fertile for a recall effort. That’s certainly on the minds of the protesters, but it couldn’t happen until January 2012.
(And by the way, all the chants are for Feingold, not Barrett.)