Monday, August 15, 2011

Review session

By Bill Kraus

The protest itself was inspiring, hopeful, and puzzling. Inspiring to see so many people so heavily engaged for whatever reason. One could hope that the era of 30-second messages and couch potatoes might be over.

It ended in a whimper not a bang when the recall elections which were the instrument chosen for a referendum on the governor, the Legislature and the radical agenda and steamroller process came up short.

There are those in the Democratic Party who think the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. They are trying to tell us that the purpose of the recalls was satisfied when two hopeless incumbents were ousted sooner rather than later and because the challengers to the four incumbents who survived actually won because they ran competitive but losing races in difficult districts. Really? Do I not hear the sound of spin doctors whistling past a graveyard.

A lot of lessons, other than that there are some things that just don’t spin, were learned.

• We learned that the voters are not as mad as some of us thought they were. Observers on all sides and on the sidelines wouldn’t have been surprised if all the rascals had been thrown out. That the voters were that angry. They weren’t and they aren’t.

• We learned that the voters are not as radical as we thought they were. On sober reflection the voters seemed to have told us that clearing the structural deficit and passing a balanced budget on time is better than the flim flam trickery that preceded it. The voters who kept the crucial four incumbents in office liked that. The defanging of the public unions and other paranoia driven issues like concealed carry and voter fraud were regarded as sideshows.

• Will we hear more about and from the public unions’ power and legitimacy? You can bet on it. One of the reasons you will is that the governor himself was willing to give up on all the things that will make life difficult for the public unions except negative checkoff during the negotiations to bring the emigrant Democrats back home. Will they ever be the 500-pound gorillas (“actually they were more like 600-pound gorillas” one former Democratic legislator told me) who subjugate some legislators and terrify the rest again? Not likely. They will not go away, however.

• The most unsurprising lesson from the recalls is the more money that goes into campaigns the more disgusting the campaigns are likely to be.

• The question whether recalls are an appropriate weapon when they are brought to bear on people and matters that don’t reach the “high crimes and misdemeanors” level which is what recalls were intended to correct seems to have been answered in the negative. The tradition of rejecting bad actors in regularly scheduled elections seems a better idea. Adding recallphobia to the long list of fears that inhibit and warp the legislative process does not get us closer to the goal of having a government that works. The below-the-radar phenomenon in legislative politics that is obscured by the steady flow of proposals that get into bill form and get introduced every year is that many legislators do not like to vote. Introducing bills is good. It creates fodder for the advertising for the next campaign. It shows action beyond mere talk on things that constituents say they want. But getting those bills to the floor where votes have to be cast brings into play one of the major differences between life in the public sector and life in the private sector. If you are selling something nobody wants in the private sector they don’t buy it. If you are voting for something nobody wants in the public sector the people who don’t want it are likely to mount a campaign against you.

Most of the veteran Democratic partisans I talked to during the recall frenzy allowed as how mass recalls looked like an opportunity that they couldn’t resist, even though it was questionable public policy.

Will recalls go back on the shelf where they belong (along with, one hopes, the overzealous use of the similarly recently abused impeachment process) to be brought into play only in extreme circumstances?

I would hope so.

Which leaves the other unaddressed and unanswered question that was raised by the winter of our discontent: What about the really remarkable thing that happened last winter. The physical protest itself. No organization. No delegates. No meetings. No agenda. Just social media and pretty raw emotions brought tens of thousands of people out of their homes into the streets and not just in politically inflammable Madison.

Given the right issue this can happen again. It could even become a standard part of political participation.

Is it a good thing? It sure is a lot better than outsourcing political activity to professional hired guns and voting for candidates based on what we hear and see on TV.

Are we in danger of becoming the Middle East where mob politics makes most of the noise and news?

Not yet. But we know the possibility lurks.
Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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