Was Democratic push for Wisconsin recall a mistake?

Pundits across the political spectrum are saying the effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was a fight Democrats were destined to lose and 'shouldn't have picked.'

Jeffrey Phelps/AP
Former President Bill Clinton, right, and Democratic candidate for Governor Tom Barrett are welcomed by supporters at a recall election rally on Friday, June 1, in Milwaukee. Barrett lost to Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin's recall election on Tuesday, June 5.

Was the Democratic push to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker a mistake? That’s what the always-blunt Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts said yesterday.

“My side picked a fight they shouldn’t have picked,” Congressman Frank told The Hill on Wednesday.

Frank is retiring after 30+ years in Congress so doesn’t have to worry if he offends union leaders and other party powerbrokers. (Not that he ever did. Worry, that is.) But he’s not the only Democratic eminence grise to criticize the Badger State recall.

“It was a dumb political fight – I would have waited until Walker’s reelection,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told The Hill in a separate story.

Yes, Rendell’s out of office and also has a history of contradicting his party’s official line. Plus hindsight is 20/20 and all that. Walker’s convincing victory has those on the left side of the US political spectrum casting about for something or someone to blame.

But Frank and Rendell are echoing points made by pundits from across the political spectrum. The bottom line: some aspects of the reelection fight pointed toward a Democratic loss entirely foretold.

The first was the “recall” nature of the election. It was only the third time in US history a sitting governor faced such a vote. (If you didn’t know that already you didn’t watch any cable news coverage of this event.)

Turns out Wisconsin voters thought a sitting official shouldn’t be recalled except in a dire circumstance. Walker’s successful effort to strip most public unions of bargaining rights did not qualify as such.

As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. noted yesterday, exit polls showed that only about a quarter of those who voted thought a recall was appropriate for any reason. Roughly sixty percent said a recall should be used only in case of official misconduct.

“Most voters, in other words, rejected the very premise of the election in which they were casting ballots,” writes Dionne.

Plus, the recall election was a rerun of the state’s 2010 gubernatorial race, with Walker facing the same opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The “Groundhog Day” aspect of the vote only added to voter perceptions that it was somehow a distortion of the normal political process, according to Rendell.

“If we’re [peeved off] at what a person does in office, the answer is to beat them when they’re up for reelection,” said Rendell.

Walker beat Barrett by 53 to 46 percent, almost exactly the same margin by which he won in 2010.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers on Wednesday said that their state’s recall process was a loser in the vote along with Barrett. Democrats also complained about an aspect of Wisconsin recall law which allows the recall target to raise an unlimited amount of money for a period of time during the campaign. It was this legal quirk, more than the fundraising implications of the “Citizens United” Supreme Court case, which led to the GOP vastly outspending Democrats in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say there was a substantial anti-recall faction that played a big part Tuesday,” Wisconsin state Sen. Tim Cullen (D) told the Appleton Post Crescent. “This is something we will have to think about going forward, how the state handles recalls, especially the part that allows incumbents to raise unlimited amounts of money.”

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