What happened in Wisconsin signals a shift in political mood and assumption. Public employee unions were beaten back and defeated in a state with a long progressive tradition. The unions and their allies put everything they had into “one of their most aggressive grass-roots campaigns ever,” as the Washington Post’s Paul Whoriskey and Dan Balz reported in a day-after piece. Fifty thousand volunteers made phone calls and knocked on 1.4 million doors to get out the vote against Gov. Scott Walker. Mr. Walker’s supporters, less deeply organized on the ground, had a considerable advantage in money.
But organization and money aren’t the headline. The shift in mood and assumption is. The vote was a blow to the power and prestige not only of the unions but of the blue-state budgetary model, which for two generations has been: Public-employee unions with their manpower, money and clout, get what they want. If you move against them, you will be crushed.
Mr. Walker was not crushed. He was buoyed, winning by a solid seven points in a high-turnout race.
Governors and local leaders will now have help in controlling budgets. Down the road there will be fewer contracts in which you work for, say, 23 years for a city, then retire with full salary and free health care for the rest of your life—paid for by taxpayers who cannot afford such plans for themselves, and who sometimes have no pension at all. The big meaning of Wisconsin is that a public injustice is in the process of being righted because a public mood is changing.
Political professionals now lay down lines even before a story happens. They used to wait to do the honest, desperate, last-minute spin of yesteryear. Now it’s strategized in advance, which makes things tidier but less raggedly fun. The line laid down by the Democrats weeks before the vote was that it’s all about money: The Walker forces outspent the unions so they won, end of story.
Money is important, as all but children know. But the line wasn’t very flattering to Wisconsin’s voters, implying that they were automatons drooling in front of the TV waiting to be told who to back. It was also demonstrably incorrect. Most voters, according to surveys, had made up their minds well before the heavy spending of the closing weeks.
Mr. Walker didn’t win because of his charm—he’s not charming. It wasn’t because he is compelling on the campaign trail—he’s not, especially. Even his victory speech on that epic night was, except for its opening sentence—”First of all, I want to thank God for his abundant grace,” which, amazingly enough, seemed to be wholly sincere—meandering, unable to name and put forward what had really happened.
But on the big question—getting control of the budget by taking actions resisted by public unions—he was essentially right, and he won.
By the way, the single most interesting number in the whole race was 28,785. That is how many dues-paying members of the American Federation of State, County and Municiple Employees were left in Wisconsin after Mr. Walker allowed them to choose whether union dues would be taken from their paychecks each week. Before that, Afscme had 62,218 dues-paying members in Wisconsin. There is a degree to which public union involvement is, simply, coerced.
People wonder about the implications for the presidential election. They’ll wonder for five months, and then they’ll know.
President Obama’s problem now isn’t what Wisconsin did, it’s how he looks each day—careening around, always in flight, a superfluous figure. No one even looks to him for leadership now. He doesn’t go to Wisconsin, where the fight is. He goes to Sarah Jessica Parker’s place, where the money is.
There is, now, a house-of-cards feel about this administration.
It became apparent some weeks ago when the president talked on the stump—where else?—about an essay by a fellow who said spending growth is actually lower than that of previous presidents. This was startling to a lot of people, who looked into it and found the man had left out most spending from 2009, the first year of Mr. Obama’s presidency. People sneered: The president was deliberately using a misleading argument to paint a false picture!
But you know, why would he go out there waving an article that could immediately be debunked? Maybe because he thought it was true. That’s more alarming, isn’t it, the idea that he knows so little about the effects of his own economic program that he thinks he really is a low spender.
For more than a month, his people have been laying down the line that America was just about to enter full economic recovery when the European meltdown stopped it. (I guess the slowdown in China didn’t poll well.) You’ll be hearing more of this—we almost had it, and then Spain, or Italy, messed everything up. What’s bothersome is not that it’s just a line, but that the White House sees its central economic contribution now as the making up of lines.
Any president will, in a presidential election year, be political. But there is a startling sense with Mr. Obama that that’s all he is now, that he and his people are all politics, all the time, undeviatingly, on every issue. He isn’t even trying to lead, he’s just trying to win.
Most ominously, there are the national-security leaks that are becoming a national scandal—the “avalanche of leaks,” according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, that are somehow and for some reason coming out of the administration. A terrorist “kill list,” reports of U.S. spies infiltrating Al Qaeda in Yemen, stories about Osama bin Laden’s DNA and how America got it, and U.S. involvement in the Stuxnet computer virus, used against Iranian nuclear facilities. These leaks, say the California Democrat, put “American lives in jeopardy,” put “our nation’s security in jeopardy.”
This isn’t the usual—this is something different. A special counsel may be appointed.
And where is the president in all this? On his way to Anna Wintour’s house. He’s busy. He’s running for president.
But why? He could be president now if he wanted to be.
It just all increasingly looks like a house of cards. Bill Clinton—that ol’ hound dog, that gifted pol who truly loves politics, who always loved figuring out exactly where the people were and then going to exactly that spot and claiming it—Bill Clinton is showing all the signs of someone who is, let us say, essentially unimpressed by the incumbent. He defended Mitt Romney as a businessman—”a sterling record”—said he doesn’t like personal attacks in politics, then fulsomely supported the president, and then said that the Bush tax cuts should be extended.
His friends say he can’t help himself, that he’s getting old and a little more compulsively loquacious. Maybe. But maybe Bubba’s looking at the president and seeing what far more than half of Washington sees: a man who is limited, who thinks himself clever, and who doesn’t know that clever right now won’t cut it.
Because Bill Clinton loves politics, he hates losers. Maybe he just can’t resist sticking it to them a little, when he gets a chance.