Wisconsin Recall is Bad For Democracy


Only two American governors have ever been successfully recalled, but on Tuesday Wisconsin voters will head to the polls to determine whether Governor Scott Walker joins that small and sorry club of ousted governors. Walker’s controversial policies and views, specifically Act 10, inspired widespread protests and even the flight of Democratic State Senators across state borders into neighboring Illinois – monumental occurrences that culminate tomorrow in Walker’s recall election. A Walker victory, which at this point seems fairly likely, will harm the Democratic Party and send a resounding message about liberal prospects in other 2012 political contests, from the White House down. But both a Walker victory and a Walker loss will have the same negative impact on the general democratic process in the United States.

I don’t particularly like Walker. I don’t agree with his methods, his divisiveness, or his deep-pocketed conservative allies who are currently pouring exorbitant amounts of outside money into the state – thanks again, Citizens United. But as much as it rankles me personally, Scott Walker won the 2010 Wisconsin gubernatorial election, defeating his current recall challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker is a Republican, a darling of the Tea Party, and as such is entitled and expected to pursue GOP goals. Attempting to remove him earlier than the regular 2014 gubernatorial election is costly, both financially and spiritually; distracts from thoughtful debate on the merits, or lack thereof, of relevant policies; harms the salient office, in this case the governorship; and sets a distinctly negative precedent.

4) Costs: Financially, the Wisconsin recall election is a major blow to taxpayers’ and donors’ pocketbooks. The remarkable flow of outside cash into the state has already been indicated, but the heaviest burden is on Wisconsin taxpayers. According to Wisconsin State Rep. Robin Vos, the Government Accountability Board (GAB) estimates that the recall election will cost taxpayers anywhere from $2.1 to $10 million. The most significant cost, however, may be on Wisconsinite psyches. The bitterly partisan atmosphere is reportedly harming relationships among friends and families, and the state’s polarizing environment is not expected to dissipate even after the election concludes.

3) Issues: The sad news is the critical issue union workers and Democrats initially loathed, Walker’s crusade on collective bargaining, has been virtually absent from recent debates and discourse in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, available evidence indicates that, thus far, some of Walker’s policies appear to be working. Wisconsin is projected to enjoy a $150 million budget surplus by the end of the biennium, although in today’s still-fragile economy anything can change. Right now, events have predictably devolved into partisan bloviating and accusations, ensuring that the election becomes not an opportunity to debate actual policies but a referendum on abstract, often theoretical party philosophies.

2) Governorship: Despite my center-left inclination, I’m displeased with Democrats’ obstinate determination to recall Walker. Interestingly, I find there are many similarities between the current Wisconsin recall and the impeachment proceedings former President Bill Clinton faced in the late '90s. Like the Wisconsin Democrats of today, congressional Republicans of yesteryear, grasping as they were for any opportunity to discredit the highly popular Clinton, unwisely attacked their most berated enemy – the only difference being the Clinton episode was not about contentious policy but rather a personal infraction that had minimal bearing on his professional conduct. But the calculus involved in the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans’ decision to impeach Clinton was extremely nuanced. According to Robert Busby in Defending the American Presidency: Clinton and the Lewinsky Scandal, Gingrich, who of course long harbored his own presidential ambitions, understood that “institutional change, via impeachment, was problematic” (Busby 108) and that he “had to beware of harming the office [Clinton] occupied” (109). In short, anything short of a commanding reason to impeach Clinton would damage the venerable office and reflect badly on those who initiated an unpopular proceeding.

Such is the case with Wisconsin. Walker’s approval rating in the state has risen to 51% – one point less than President Barack Obama’s. According to a Gallup “Presidential Approval Ratings – Historical Statistics and Trends” report, Clinton’s national approval rating similarly rose in the midst of his troubles. In fact, Clinton enjoyed a career-high approval rating of 73% in December 1998, right in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal.

Overall, just as the president is the chief executive of the country, individual governors are the chief executives of their states. Just as baselessly impeaching a president is harmful to the office itself, so too is recalling a governor for his policies harmful to the governorship.

1) Precedent: Regardless of whether or not Walker loses, the precedent being set in Wisconsin is unnerving. It is incontrovertible that today’s political environment is more polarized than ever, meaning liberals will almost universally dislike the policies of conservatives and vice versa. Spearheading a recall effort because certain policies are distasteful to a select group of people is not smart politics; rather, it is an exercise in opportunism, antagonism, and impatience. Hopefully other states, red and blue, will not adopt the methods currently implemented in Wisconsin.

Recalls must be reserved for severe ethical and/or criminal violations perpetrated by the relevant politician, from local school board member to powerful governors. Anything less is an abuse of the process that ultimately damages both the party pushing for the recall and the democratic system within which it occurs.