Tuesday night's Wisconsin recall election, a magnet for contending national interest groups, is interesting in itself. But it is only one straw in a very strong wind which is sweeping through not only the United States but Europe as well.
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, along with other governors of both political parties, addressed a big budget gap last year by challenging public-employee unions to pay a greater share of their health and retirement benefits. He took a step further by getting legislative passage of a measure taking away most of their collective bargaining rights. (Police and firefighters were exempted).Unions properly saw the collective-bargaining challenge as fundamental to their future. Rather than waiting for the next scheduled election for a showdown, they took the seldom-used path of a recall campaign. The recall election, the third in U.S. history of a governor, also involves the lieutenant governor and four Republican state-senate incumbents. If any of the four senators is unseated, it will give Democrats a majority in the state senate and the capacity to block further Walker inititiatives, should he survive the election himself.
I was surprised, at the time, that Walker would go so far as to challenge collective bargaining rights in a state with a long tradition of unionism. The general electorate (also taxpayers) could identify with his effort to restrain public-employee-union pay and benefits. But a large number (I thought a majority) would oppose limiting collective-bargaining rights.
The Wisconsin struggle is seen as a possible harbinger of national trends this November. Wisconsin in recent years has been a Democratic-leaning state in national elections. A GOP victory there Tuesday, following an all-out effort by unions and their allies to unseat Walker and Co., would be seen as putting Wisconsin into the "contested" column and possibly leaning Republican. It also would be seen as an indicator that union strength had waned in other states and that politicians could take them on without undue risk to themselves.
President Barack Obama, seeing the Tuesday outcome as chancy, has somewhat surprisingly not campaigned actively in Wisconsin on behalf of the recall. (This illustrates his general willingness to become engaged in fights which affect his own immediate standing but to avoid those more greatly impacting his party or core constituencies such as the labor movement.) An older-style political type would have gone all-out for Democrats and labor in the Wisconsin election and, win or lose, would have been seen as a standup leader. If Republicans win Tuesday, Obama will be perceived by his allies as weak and lacking loyalty.
Beyond the impact of Tuesday's recall election on Obama, on GOP standardbearer Mitt Romney, or on Republicans or Democrats in general, it can be seen as only part of a pattern in which the issues involved have become ascendant in this country's and European Union politics.
Whether in the United States or in EU countries, national governments and political parties are being forced by financial and economic circumstance to confront issues they evaded before the 2008 financial crisis struck.
•Short-term deficits and long-term debt which are choking growth throughout the western world.
•The vulnerability of financial systems to adverse events in one country or, for that matter, in one major bank.
•The inability of governments to finance their welfare states in their present form.
•The inability of governments and political parties to contend with demanding interest groups, unwilling to yield concessions granted to them over many decades and which can bring down presidents and parliaments when sufficiently angered.
•The lack of a stable "center" possessing the balance of political power in most countries.
In these circumstances, will governments and political leaders rally their national opinions behind difficult but necessary policies for recovery? Or will they try to sustain themselves by improvising, crisis to crisis, while conveniently postponing real difference-making change?
The Tuesday showdown in Wisconsin is small beer in the larger scheme of things. Had Walker and state public-employee unions shown more restraint, it would not be taking place. My own guess: Gov. Walker will survive narrowly but at least one of the GOP state senators will be recalled, giving Democrats the ability to block further Walker initiatives during his term.
Consider, however, that the issues involved would not have been anywhere near the top of the public agenda even four years ago. Now they surround us.