Learning From Our Mistakes: A Recall Post-Mortem

If we progressives learn nothing else from the aftermath of the Wisconsin recall election last night, we have to learn that strategy is far more important in politics than emotion. As I said in a previous post, politics itself is not personal, and taking an emotional approach to it will almost always result in frustration and loss. Just because you think a cause is right doesn’t mean everyone else thinks so. More importantly, you have to understand that not everyone has the same priorities as you, and they don’t resent the same things you do. We’re all different, and we think differently. Politics is about seeking out the common ground and appealing to people using that.

I knew I had to write this piece last night, when my Twitter feed was filled with puzzlement over the fact that exit polling showed Walker surviving recall, even as a majority of Wisconsin voters favored President Obama in November. This was seen by many liberals as a "contradiction." But it's not a contradiction at all. In order to believe it's a contradiction, you have to believe that everyone who cast a vote for Walker was actually in favor of Walker. 

This is the problem with binary thinking, folks; it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the democratic system works. Many people who voted for Walker last night didn’t necessarily vote for him because they think he’s the best governor ever. Many of them probably don’t have anything against Tom Barrett, except perhaps that he’s from Milwaukee. A large number of voters may have voted for Walker as a matter of what they view as “principle.” Among those "principles" could very well be:

  • A resentment of recalling a governor barely more than a year after electing him in the first place. A term for governor in Wisconsin is four years, and progressives were already calling for his ouster after he'd been there for a month or two. A lot of folks don’t believe in recall at all; they believe regular election day is the time to get rid of politicians. Others believe that recall should be reserved for those politicians who commit crimes, or who commit serious malfeasance.
  • A principled belief in the democratic process. There are some who saw Walker's recall as something akin to a progressive hissy fit over not getting their way in the democratic political system. And many folks also imagine a cycle in which progressives recall Walker because they don’t like the election results, and then a retaliation by the Koch Brothers and their ilk, resulting in a recall of Barrett in favor of Walker, and then another recall of Walker, or whomever the Republicans get elected, and then another recall of another Democrat. Where would such a cycle stop? And those of you who think that fear is irrational don’t know the right wing very well. 
  • A feeling of intrusion by outside forces. Let’s be clear, folks; there was a hell of a lot of interest in this recall effort from outside the state, and to think there was little or no resentment from some corners at the feeling that others were telling the people of Wisconsin what to do is just irrational. For every Wisconsin teacher who was demanding that President Obama come to the state to lend his blessing, I guarantee someone else would have been ticked off if he had done so. 
  • Election fatigue. Wisconsinites have been to the polls numerous times, and some of them may be getting tired of going to the polls. You elect these people for four years. That’s not an eternity, and nothing they do is completely irreversible, anyway. Let them serve out their terms and then replace them. Going to the polls every six months is probably making a lot of voters upset.

Like I said, a lot of votes for Walker weren't necessarily votes for Walker, but votes against the recall concept itself. If the current investigation of Walker uncovers some specific malfeasance, then the recall would have had more steam. But we couldn't wait. 

Of course, we also lost because we had no strategy beyond collecting signatures. While progressives were hot to engage the recall process, there seems to have been little discussion as to how it could be accomplished. 

I only say that because there was little to no actual strategy involved. For example, whose bright idea was it to have a contested Democratic primary, especially given that there would be barely a month between the primary and the election? The recall process started well over a year ago, and Walker has used his time to prepare for it. He’s actually moderated, politically since the recall process was started, because he took it seriously and prepared. In the meantime, Wisconsin Democrats allowed a contested primary, which took the focus off of Walker for several months before Barrett emerged the winner. In what way is this good politics? The party should have decided on their nominee before the recall process even started, and they should have chosen a strong, statewide politician whom Walker hadn’t just beaten in a race a year ago.  

The groups trying to recall Walker blew it. They did everything wrong, politically speaking. No matter how right you think you are, you can’t win if you don’t play the game properly. They had a year to choose a candidate and build name recognition and reputation, but they built the entire race around emotion, and they bet that everyone hated Walker as much as they did. That's a bad political bet, because — repeat after me — politics isn't personal for the voters who actually decide elections. 

Politics isn’t about right or wrong, it’s about winning or losing. Republicans understand this. Many Democrats understand this. But many liberals and even conservative independents simply do not understand it at all. It’s not enough to be right; you have to be willing to do whatever you have to do to get the most votes. In this case, we had a year to evaluate how people felt about the recall concept, how they felt about Walker, and how they felt about the democratic process, and decide the best way to recall Walker, or if such a thing was even possible. None of this was done. It was decided that we were right, Walker was wrong, and that's all that mattered. And we lost. Again. 

I know, many of you blame the money. Yes, money had some influence in this campaign, but not in the way you think. The fact that Republicans had to pour so much money into Wisconsin to save Walker should be seen as something of a plus for Democrats in November.They won’t have that money to spend the rest of the year. That’s money that can’t be spent by Republicans on races that could mean the House and Senate for them. 

There was nothing to have been gained from national Democrats pouring tons of money into that race, especially since Wisconsin Democrats did everything wrong. If the DNC had poured our donations into that race, there would be that much less money to spend taking back the House and holding onto the Senate. Plus, there might have been significant resentment by donors to the DNC that their money was being spent on a losing race, which might have cost even more money in the long run.

We have to stop being so emotional about politics, and start playing the game better. Politics is about strategy, and it can't be left to chance. We have to stop thinking the fact that we're right about something is sufficient to win elections, especially since 32 years of neocon domination of politics proves that concept altogether wrong. Politics is a process, and you need an endgame and a strategy to get there. Without that, all the rightness in the world won't help us.