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'Big Money' Thwarts 'People Power' in Wisconsin Recall

Recall Campaign Against Scott Walker Fails

Robert M. La Follette, the architect of the progressive movement that a century ago made Wisconsin the nation's "laboratory of democracy," recognized that the experiments would at times go awry. "We have long rested comfortably in this country upon the assumption that because our form of government was democratic, it was therefore automatically producing democratic results. Now, there is nothing mysteriously potent about the forms and names of democratic institutions that should make them self-operative," he observed after suffering more than his share of defeats. "Tyranny and oppression are just as possible under democratic forms as under any other."Voting ballots are stacked and ready as voters wait in line to cast their ballot Tuesday, June 5, 2012, in Milwaukee. Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker is taking on Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in a recall election. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Those words echoed across the decades on the night of June 5, as the most powerful of the accountability tools developed in La Follette's laboratory -- the right to recall errant officials -- proved insufficient for the removal of Governor Scott Walker.

The failure of the campaign against Walker, while heartbreaking for Wisconsin union families and the great activist movement that developed to counter the governor and his policies, offers profound lessons not just for Wisconsin but for a nation that is wrestling with fundamental questions of how to counter corporate and conservative power in a Citizens United moment. Those lessons are daunting, as they suggest the "money power" populists and progressives of another era identified as the greatest threat to democracy has now organized itself as a force that cannot be easily thwarted even by determined "people power."

The Wisconsin result says that big money matters more -- perhaps much more -- now than it ever has. It can take a damaged candidate like Scott Walker and repurpose him as a winner. That's very good news for Mitt Romney. But it does not have to be the end of the story.

The Wisconsin result -- which followed upon a campaign that saw Walker outspend his Democratic challenger by perhaps 8-1, as the governor's billionaire backers flooded the state with tens of millions of dollars in "independent" expenditures on his behalf -- should send up red flares for Democrats as they prepare for this fall's presidential and congressional elections. The right has developed a far more sophisticated money-in-politics template than it has ever before employed. That template worked in Wisconsin, on behalf of a deeply-divisive and scandal-plagued governor, and it worked.

But the quick calculus that says organized money beats organized people misses the fact that those who sought to depose "the imperial Walker" were also experimenting. They made mistakes, particularly as regards messaging. They were let down by national Democratic players who never quite recognized that Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus and “independent” groups on the right were testing and perfecting strategies for November.

Yet, against overwhelming odds, Wisconsin's recall movement fought its way to a dead heat, losing only narrowly in its effort to remove a "right-wing rock star" whose reelection became the top priority of the Republican party, the conservative movement and the 1% billionaires who made Walker's reelection a national priority.

For those who see democracy as a spectator sport with clearly-defined seasons that finish on election day, the Wisconsin results are just depressing. But for those who recognize the distance Wisconsin -- and other states, such as Ohio, which used a veto referendum to restore collective-bargaining rights -- have come since the Republicans won just about everything in 2010, the recall story is instructive.

Walker's February, 2011, assault on union rights provoked some of the largest mass demonstrations in modern labor history, protests that anticipated the "Occupy" phenomenon with a three-week takeover of the state Capitol and universal slogan "Blame Wall Street Not the Workers, protests that both drew inspiration from and served to inspire the global kicking up against  austerity. The governor never backed off his self-declared "divide and conquer" agenda of attacking not just public-sector unions but public services and public education. So there developed early on in Wisconsin a sense that the only way to stop Walker was to remove him from office using the "petition for the redress of grievances" power of recall, which allows citizens to gather a sufficient number of signatures to force a new election.

The Wisconsin recall vote was only the third for a governor in Wisconsin history. The previous two were organized by the right, with substantial corporate support. In Wisconsin, it was different. The labor movement and its allies forced the vote, relying on grassroots activists who gathered more than 900,000 signatures (over 40 percent of the electorate in the previous gubernatorial election) in every township, village and city of the state.

Walker's response was to collect more than $30 million. That was more than anyone running for any office in Wisconsin history had ever raised, and the money came overwhelmingly -- more than 70 percent in the final filing -- from out of state. That money was well spent; it framed a message rooted in fantasy and fabrication that suggested up was down, right was left and that his economic policies (which spawned the worst job losses in the nation) were "working."

Walker's economic policies didn't work. But his advertisements did; they moved him up in the polls as Democrats and their allies were struggling to identify a candidate to challenge him. And that poll advantage spooked national Democratic strategists, who got overly cautious about engaging with the Wisconsin struggle. There was no caution on the other side; Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus, a Wisconsin native, was always "all in," as were the party's top donors. And that mattered; a loophole in Wisconsin law allowed Walker to collected unlimited amounts of money during the period before the recall election was formally scheduled. He got collected piles of checks for as much as $500,000. And the billionaires who weren't donating to his campaign were setting up "independent" expenditures on his behalf -- like the one that Joe Ricketts, the guy who got caught out scheming to attack President Obama, organized to defend Walker and attack Barrett.

There'll be plenty of speculation about whether things in Wisconsin would have been different if Obama, the national Democrats and their donors had gone all in for Barrett. But that misses a deeper point; the unlimited spending that Republicans and their allies can now engage in is a new factor in our politics. And it has the potential to be definitional unless Democrats and progressives figure things out quickly. They should have been on the ground in Wisconsin not just to beat Walker but to get a read on where politics in America is headed in the Citizens United age.

The answer is not that Democrats and unions need to figure out how to counter Republican and corporate money. They can't. So does Wisconsin then tell us that its over for progressive politics of any kind in America? Not necessarily.

The Wisconsin result says that big money matters more -- perhaps much more -- now than it ever has. It can take a damaged candidate like Scott Walker and repurpose him as a winner. That's very good news for Mitt Romney. But it does not have to be the end of the story.

"Democrats don't have to have as much money as Republicans to compete in campaigns," says state Representative Fred Kessler, a Wisconsin Democrat who has been running campaigns for 50 years. "What they have to do is figure out how to spend the money they have in a way that counters the big money."

In Wisconsin, Democrats struggled with their message, trying to transition the radicalism of the Capitol protests of 2011 -- which took as their symbol a clenched "Solidarity" fist in the shape of the state -- into the narrow confines of contemporary politics. It didn't work. Months of soft messaging about important issues -- from education to voting rights -- took some of the edge off the movement messaging that had defined the protests and the petitioning for the recall. As a result, polls conducted after the Democratic primary picked Barrett showed that a third or more of voters who identified as coming from a "union household" intended to vote for Walker. Private-sector unions found themselves scrambling in the weeks before the June 5 election to shore up a base that should have been secured from the start.

There was, as well, a huge problem with messaging as regards the recall itself. Walker's theme for the better part of year -- reinforced in paid advertising and constant appearances on his favored news network: Fox -- was that the recall election was a costly partisan temper tantrum. The criticism was never really countered.

What could Democrats and the unions have done differently. They could have taken a portion of the millions they did spend on television ads attacking Walker -- whose negatives were already high and who was taken regular media hits regarding a criminal investigation of his aides and donors -- and spent it on early advertising to make the case for collective bargaining and the recall election. Democrats and their allies do a lousy job of framing debates, and that was certainly the case in Wisconsin.

Taking lessons from Wisconsin is important for progressives, as conservatives will surely be taking their lessons -- most of which will be about the power of big money. But one lesson that progressive ought not take from Wisconsin is the theory that mass movements cannot beat big money.

Unions and their allies invested in mobilization of voters in Wisconsin's cities, especially African-American voters in Milwaukee and Racine. And it worked. Turnout was up dramatically, so much so that on election day election clerks had to be shifted to predominantly African-American wards.

"You can't spend all your money on television.  You've got to spend it on the ground," says Congresswoman Gwen Moore, a Milwaukee Democrat. "That's the most important thing to take away from Wisconsin. Investing on the ground more Democratic voters the polls. Even if it wasn't quite enough, people have to realize that's where you begin. That's how you build the base for winning next time."

There will be a next time, not just in Wisconsin but nationally. The fight to remove Walker was necessary, and important. That it did not succeed is heartbreaking. But it cannot be definitional.

Republicans will continue to push their austerity agendas, in Wisconsin and nationally. And progressives have to get better at beating them, in the streets and at the polls. Robert M. La Follette, who suffered more than his share of defeats before he started winning against the robber barons of his day, got it right -- for his time, and ours. "We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle," La Follette explained. "It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated."

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