On, Wisconsin! Or so it was meant to be with a union-led recall in the home state of Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette Sr., the populist governor and senator who once shaped the cry for anti-corporate social justice in this nation. After La Follette there was the Wisconsinite William Proxmire, the great conscience of the U.S. Senate, followed by the equally impressive Russ Feingold, who, despite being exactly correct in warning of the consequences of unfettered banking greed, was turned out by Wisconsin voters in 2010. Perhaps if the original McCain-Feingold legislation -- gutted by the Supreme Court -- was still the law of the land on campaign finance, the Democrats and their union base would have survived Tuesday's election.
Certainly that is the excuse provided by what remains of the liberal media, which point to the lopsided advantage in funding for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and to the high court's Citizens United ruling in seeking reasons for this "billionaire's victory" over "people power." But the larger truth is that the spirit of populism has been perverted by the Republican tea party right and that Democrats are left defending government bureaucracy while remaining incapable of responding to America's widespread economic pain.
At a time when so many are worried about obtaining or holding on to work, it's difficult to rally around the guaranteed job security and high pensions of some privileged government employees. Not all public workers fit into this category, to be sure. But nonpublic workers who must struggle with the vagaries of private employment have seen more than enough examples of government employee unions, the last stronghold of organized labor, exercising their power to ensure what appears to be outsized compensation for their members.
Of course this argument is a red herring. The budget crises of state and municipal governments were not brought on by excessive pay to firemen, cops and other civil servants, but rather by a banking meltdown that has enriched those who engineered it. Housing values, and the local taxes dependent on them, are down because of financial shenanigans that wrapped mortgages into collateralized debt obligations, and that is the root cause of government red ink. But the job security and pensions of government employees make terribly convenient scapegoats at a time when so many Americans are lining up at food banks.
The electorate in Wisconsin, and San Diego and San Jose, Calif., that voted Tuesday against public employee unions were not expressing a rational response to the crisis, but rather a tantrum stoked by the lavishly financed demagogues of the right. The voters bought their story because the opportunism of the Democratic Party leadership has left progressives without a believable alternative to the tea party's narrative. Indeed, job creation became a bigger issue than collective bargaining in the Wisconsin race, and the dismal national unemployment figures that came out just days before the election didn't hurt the Republicans' cause.
By refusing to campaign in the state before Tuesday's vote, President Obama proved he has no heart for engaging in a real debate about the sources of our economic crisis. As Bloomberg News reported in an editorial titled "All Eyes on Wisconsin, Except Obama's," the president made two fundraising stops within 50 miles of the Wisconsin border last Friday, but studiously avoided entering the state he easily carried in the 2008 election. Instead of visiting, Obama tweeted: "It's Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow, and I'm standing by Tom Barrett. He'd make an outstanding governor. -bo." Not a word of support for the unions that so slavishly support the president and spent millions propping up Barrett.
"Bo" emerged with his popularity intact, according to exit polls, and he will do better in November than Barrett did this week, despite media attempts to treat the Wisconsin election as an omen of things to come.
Few Midwestern independents and moderates will fault Obama for saving the American automobile industry from extinction, if Mitt Romney plays that weak card in campaigning against the president. Nor will the president lack for funds to finance his message. Democrats who made such a big deal about the money from the superrich that poured into Wisconsin were frequently reminded on Internet comments pages that Obama raised more money from the well-heeled than did John McCain in the last election. And to paraphrase those old Smith Barney commercials, Obama got Wall Street's money the old-fashioned way. He earned it.
That cannot be said of the unqualified support Obama has received from organized labor and the working people it attempts to represent. He has failed both at every turn.