In this throw-a-chair era of political combat, it was inevitable that the recall election results from Wisconsin would be misinterpreted. Flush with vindication over having survived the over-hyped recall challenge, Republican Gov. Scott Walker declared, “Tonight, we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country, and we tell people around the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make tough decisions.”
Walker, who won his rematch with Tom Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, by a larger margin than in 2010, is entitled to assume that yak herders in Mongolia—like everyone around the globe—cheered the results from Waukesha. The governor is even free to believe that facing down the public-sector unions in Wisconsin is courageous leadership on par with Abraham Lincoln preserving the Union. But what is flat-out wrong was Walker’s claim that voters crave leaders who make “tough decisions” the way that he did.
[Slideshow: Gov. Walker beats back challenger]
During Walker’s initial race for governor two years ago, Wisconsin voters knew that he was a fiscal and social conservative enraged by government spending plans like building a high-speed rail connection between Milwaukee and Madison. So no one should have been surprised when, shortly after taking office last year, Walker ripped up the tracks on the high-speed rail plan, spurning $810 million in federal funds. That is what political leadership should be—presenting your vision to the voters and, if elected, trying to enact it.
[Related: Wisconsin win 'will echo beyond' state, Romney says]
In contrast, Walker kept under wraps during his first gubernatorial race his driving dream of drastically curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public employees. This stealth campaigning was probably smart politics. Wisconsin, after all, is the state that pioneered public-sector unionism. But by not running on this issue, Walker deliberately deprived himself of an electoral mandate.
That hush-hush strategy partly explains the seismic shock that hit Wisconsin when Walker, a month after taking office, revealed the full extent of his anti-union agenda. At a dinner for his Cabinet in February 2011, the night before he unveiled his legislation (Act 10) to roll back union bargaining rights, Walker compared himself to Ronald Reagan standing up to the air-traffic controllers in 1981. The freshly minted governor said, “This is our time to change the course of history.”
What Walker missed with his bend-history rhetoric was that Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union in response to an illegal strike. This is what presidents and leaders do—react to unexpected crises in a way that reflects their already articulated governing philosophy.
But in Wisconsin, there was no public employee strike, just the budgetary shortfall that afflicted most states in this stagnant economy. Without a crisis, Walker went beyond his electoral mandate in an effort to neuter the unions. Act 10 was an act of preventive war, a surprise invasion into a political area that many voters had assumed was off limits.
[Related: Barrett slapped by supporter after conceding race]
Walker’s unquestioned triumph Tuesday in beating back the unions and the Democrats may vault him onto Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential list. But in truth, there is little honor for Walker in being only the third governor face a recall election—and the first to survive one—since the Progressives came up with this drastic remedy for bad governance more than a century ago. For all Walker’s glib talk about leadership, a politician is doing things wrong when he becomes so polarizing a figure that he has to spend nearly $50 million to avoid being booted out of office after just 19 months.
Walker’s hubristic overreach brings to mind Rahm Emanuel’s assertion, during the 2008 transition period after President Barack Obama’s election, “No crisis should go to waste.” Just after being named Obama’s White House chief of staff, Emanuel told a conference, “This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.” As a result, Obama’s much-needed 2009 short-term stimulus plan (remember: the economy barely had a heartbeat) was larded with long-term projects like high-speed rail and revamping the nation’s electrical grid.
Upon taking office, of course, Obama had to go beyond the limited economic jump-start plan that he articulated during his campaign. The world changed on September 15, 2008, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. During the remaining six weeks of the presidential race, neither Obama nor John McCain grasped that this Wall Street financial crisis would produce the worst sustained economic downturn since the Depression. This is why endlessly parsing campaign position papers is folly. Every presidency is shaped by unforeseen events and unimagined crises.
As we wait for the Supreme Court to rule later this month on the constitutionality of health care reform, Obama’s signature legislative achievement, it is worth pondering whether a more incremental approach by the president would have made more political sense. Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama, to his credit, made clear to the voters that revamping the health care system would be a major priority.
But in his public rhetoric, Obama never said a federal mandate would be at the center of his health-care plan. During the Democratic presidential primaries, Obama even attacked Hillary Clinton for championing a legal requirement that every American have health insurance. (Needless to say, Obama’s turnabout is more than matched by Romney’s amnesiac approach to the health care mandate that he enacted as Massachusetts governor.)
My point is not to create a false equivalence between Obama and Walker, who spurned traditional norms of governing as soon as he took office in Wisconsin. But it is telling that two of the most unpopular aspects of the Obama presidency (the overreach of the stimulus package and the health care mandate) went far beyond his 2008 campaign oratory.
The secret to political leadership—whether as a governor or in the Oval Office—is to trust the voters with the truth. That way an electoral mandate can mean something beyond an opportunity to assert power for the sake of asserting power. If Wisconsin can provide a lasting lesson in the dangers of political overreach, then maybe the partisan excess of the third recall election in American history was not entirely wasted.