One of the slogans of the campaign to recall Scott Walker is “Reclaim Wisconsin.” This follows close on the heels of the Walker campaign’s 2010 slogan “Believe in Wisconsin Again.” It is typical of politics that each side claims to speak for “The People” and for truth and righteousness and progress. Even conservatives claim to offer more and better progress than progressives, who in turn claim to conserve the best of the past.
The truth is, between forty and forty-nine percent of the electorate generally voted for the losing candidate in any election. That is not a majority, which is why the losing candidate lost. But it is a lot of people, a very significant part of “We The People.” Seldom is any election a mandate to go whole hog on whatever the winner’s little heart desires. One reason Scott Walker is likely to face a recall election — which he may well lose — is that he forgot this simple fact.
Walker won fifty-two percent of the vote, in one of the lowest voter turnouts in many election cycles. Fifty-two percent is a majority, and it entitled him to take office. It meant that the center of gravity of “We The People” was leaning a bit his way. If he had been thinking clearly, instead of whooping for joy like a little boy in a candy store, he would have started his term differently.
He would have said “Gee, forty-eight percent of the people didn’t want what I offered, and a record number were so uninspired they didn’t vote for me any more than they voted for Tom Barrett.” He would have sat down with the leadership of the surviving Democrats in the legislature, and said, look, I won, and this is my plan, but to make this work for everyone, I’m going to need your help. Let’s talk about what the bottom line is for me, what the bottom line is for you, how we can cut each other some slack, and make the next four years work for all the people of Wisconsin.
But he didn’t. That is one reason he is facing a strong demand for recall. In addition, he has alienated a significant number of the voters who elected him. People who voted for Scott Walker are out circulating recall petitions. When you won with fifty-two percent, all it takes is three percent changing their mind about you, and your numbers are down to forty-nine percent. A shift of five percent brings you down to forty-seven percent. A new governor doing a half-way decent job generally moves things the other way, with five or ten percent of those who voted for the loser saying, Yah, well, this guy’s not doing such a bad job.”
News coverage suggests that Walker’s own polls show fifty-seven percent favoring recall. That is exactly what a recall election is for: when one year in office horrifies many of the people who voted for the incumbent. But not ALL the people who voted for Scott Walker favor a recall. There are those who like and admire him, who approve of most or all that he had accomplished.
When the dust settles, if Walker is recalled, it is a sure bet that AT LEAST forty percent of “We The People” of Wisconsin will have voted to keep Governor Walker in office. It is likely to be closer to forty-five percent, maybe even forty-nine percent. The Democratic Party will then have to face the fact that not much short of half the voters still supported Scott Walker. Voters who are NOT Democrats, but supported the recall, will also have to adjust their expectations of what happens next.
It won’t be carte blanche to do whatever the new governor wants. Even if control of one or both houses of the legislature flip, by recall elections in 2012, or in the regular November elections, the new governor must BE what Scott Walker rhetorically claimed to be: the governor of all the people of Wisconsin. No law, no program, no platform, ever gets the support of 100 percent of the people. Individuals are too individual for that. But the things worth doing, the things that need doing, should each be laws, programs, policies, budget items, that a good sixty-to eighty percent of the people can live with.
If Walker had thought about that, he wouldn’t be facing a recall right now. If the next governor thinks about it, use of the recall will remain rare, a last resort. Otherwise, we are going to have constant battles between caucuses and parties that want what they want and want it now, but are unwilling to accommodate what forty percent of the people care about. It will be non-stop battles, and no time to actually get anything done.