There will be all kinds of dancing around the issue of why progressives lost the recall campaign against union-busting Tea Party Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin on Tuesday, with the Obama campaign trying to claim that it was not a reflection on him or his popularity, the Democratic Party saying it was not their battle, and the labor movement, sadly, blaming it all on right-wing money. They’ll all be saying that it doesn’t matter, and that the important thing is to focus on helping Democrats win in November.
So let’s get it straight. The Wisconsin battle was hugely important — an existential struggle for the US labor movement and working people in general, and a critical litmus test of the real nature of both President Obama and of the Democratic Party. And both the president and the party failed that test. Completely and deliberately.
Let’s first get rid of the false Big Money argument. The truth is that no amount of money can turn an election when the public is fired up over a cause or a candidate. What Big Money on one side of an issue or on behalf of one candidate can do is rally the people who are on that side, to get them out to the polls. On the margins, it might help sway a few undecided people who can be duped or scared, but this is of very limited help, because such people tend to be disinterested in politics and voting, so even if they are convinced by the propaganda, they are unlikely to turn out. That can only make a difference if the other side fails to get all its supporters out.
The progressives who battled mightily in this campaign may have been wildly outspent, but they were hardly without resources and they certainly managed to reach every potential supporter with their message of defending working people from Walker’s attack.
What they lacked was any significant support from the Democratic Party and the party’s standard-bearer, President Barack Obama — the man who as candidate back in 2008, when he won Wisconsin, promised to put on a pair of “comfortable shoes” and to “walk the picket line” with struggling workers everywhere.
A political party is nothing but a patronage vehicle and get-rich-quick scheme for corrupt politicians unless it has basic principles that it is willing to go down fighting for. If the Democratic Party was a real party, fighting to protect the right of workers to organize and bargain would be one of those core principles. Yet both Obama and the Democratic Party looked at the Republican attack on the right to organize that began in Wisconsin, spreading to Ohio and other states, and instead of standing and fighting with the people of Wisconsin, they made a “tactical” decision to stand aside and let the Republicans win.
Obama not only didn’t put in a single visit to Wisconsin during this long recall campaign; he went out of his way to steer well clear of the state, not even dropping in during a visit to Minneapolis a week before the vote, when he was 15 miles from Wisconsin, less than 100 miles from Eau Claire, and less than 300 miles from the capital of Madison, the epicenter of the recall battle.
When asked at a press conference why the president had not weighed in on this epic battle for one of his key constituencies — the labor movement, and in particular the public employee unions — his press secretary lamely said that the president “hoped” that Walker’s Democratic opponent for governor, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, would “prevail.” The president’s other only effort (if it can even be called that) on behalf of the recall campaign was a limp Tweet that didn’t even mention the recall itself or the threat Walker posed to workers. In full, it said, “It’s Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow, and I’m standing by Tom Barrett. He’d make an outstanding governor. -bo”
Twitter may have helped to ignite the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, but if those Arab Spring Tweets had read like that one, I’m sure Mubarak would still be pulling the fingernails off of and killing dissidents, instead of sitting in a prison hospital cell himself.
As for the Democratic Party, it did exactly nothing to help progressives and labor unions in Wisconsin in this fight. Sure, the Democratic National Committee will claim that it sent money to Wisconsin, but that was money that was equally budgeted to every state for the national election season, not extra money designated to fight the recall battle.
The Obama campaign and the DNC decided long ago that they did not want to get involved in the Walker recall. Partly, they didn’t want to risk being in support of a losing effort. More importantly, they did not want to be identified with union activists. The truth is that the big money supporting both the DNC and the president’s campaign is corporate money, and those people simply don’t like unions. Also, the Obama “brain trust,” if you can really call these people smart after three and a half years of disastrous White House policies favoring the rich and the powerful, has decided that the way to a second term is by ignoring the poor, ignoring minorities, ignoring labor unions, ignoring working people, and instead focusing on “independent” and “undecided” voters.
That strategy, which was also used with some success by President Clinton, though in much different economic times, involves proposing a lot of targeted narrow legislative measures — for example a law to require equal pay for equal work — that have no chance of passage, and taking stands on narrow “wedge issues” — for example coming out in support of gay marriage, while still insisting it is an “issue for the states to decide.” These are not things that will energize anyone, least of all people who are “independent” or “undecided.”
The US is in the fourth year of a full-scale depression. Workers are struggling with an epic 20-percent jobless rate, when discouraged workers and workers who have accepted part-time jobs in desperation are factored in. To get them and the millions more who are worried about losing their jobs tomorrow or who have relatives who are jobless to the polls in a Wisconsin recall election that was not specifically about getting them jobs, or in a national election, would have required leaders and a party that were passionate about going after the corporate crooks that got us in this mess, about creating millions of jobs, whatever the cost, about defending public programs like public education, college scholarship grants, and jobless benefits, about slashing the military and ending all the wars that are draining the national budget.
It would require firebrands in office and running for office.
That is not the Democratic Party, and it assuredly is not President Barack Obama.
This becomes clear when we look at the turnout numbers. Gov. Walker, in 2012, despite polls showing him to be less popular in Wisconsin this year than he was when he was when he was elected in 2010, garnered more than 200,000 extra votes in 2012 for a total of 1.33 million, up 19% from his 1.13 million votes in the 2010 election. His opponent, Mayor Barrett, who was also the loser in the 2010 campaign, picked up only an extra 154,000 votes in the recall for a total of 1.16 million, a gain of only 13% over 2010. It is clear from these numbers that what was missing in Wisconsin was leadership from the president and the Democratic Party, saying that this was a critical vote not just for labor but for the whole progressive movement, the Democratic Party and the president — the kind of leadership that would have energized every Democrat in the state to come out and vote.
As for the labor movement, if its members and leaders ever really believed they were considered important by the Democratic Party or by the president, the behavior of both the president and the party in the Wisconsin recall election should thoroughly disabuse them of that fantasy.
When it comes the Democrats and this president, it has now been demonstrated unambiguously that labor and working people are completely expendable. The assumption in the Obama campaign, and at the DNC, has always been that progressives will vote for them in the end no matter how they are ignored and humiliated and undermined, because the alternative — the Republicans — are so much worse.
Wisconsin’s recall, where Gov. Scott Walker represents the very worst of even the Republican Party
— a corrupt, vicious, union-baiting thug of a politician, tied to far-right corporate interests like the Koch brothers — has now proven that this assumption on the part of Democratic campaign strategists is wrong. Progressives, sold out by Democratic politicians, may not have anywhere else to turn, but they may just not turn out at all.
Clearly, the time has long since come for labor and progressives to bolt the Democratic Party and coalesce around a new genuinely progressive, working people’s party.
A year ago, I suggested that the members of the progressive caucus in Congress could dramatically promote the formation of such a new politics by collectively resigning from the Democratic Party, and announcing the formation of a new party. Now I would suggest that they can do better than that. There is a good party for them to join already: The Justice Party that is running former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson as its presidential candidate. If even a decent fraction of the incumbent progressive members of Congress were to join and run for reelection on the Justice Party ticket this fall instead of as Democrats, it would give the battered labor movement a place to put its money and its members’ enthusiasm and hopes. And since they’re incumbents with records to run on, name recognition, ballot access and access to money, most of them would still win re-election.
A little of that, and the Democratic Party, already a dessicated husk, would likely whither up and blow away, like those mummies in B horror flicks that crumble into a pile of dust when a sarcophagus is opened to the fresh air.
And that’s just what our political system needs: a blast of fresh air.