David Frum

06.06.12

What Did Wisconsin Mean (And Not)?

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Tom Lynn / Getty Images

1) The age of austerity will bear hard on public-sector unions, or rather, even harder than it already has. An electorate that has seen its standards of living corrode will not pay taxes to sustain superior pay and benefits for its public sector employees. Over the past 3 years, we have seen the state and local public sector shrink. Over the next decade, we will see its pay relentlessly ground down, as private sector pay has been ground down over the decade past.

2) Wisconsin has definitively exposed the failure of the American left to build an effective populist movement despite the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. The Wisconsin recall vote was a battle at a time and place of the unions' own choosing. They still lost, and in one of the bluest states of non-coastal America. Who'll fear them now? Say what you will about the Tea Party, it collected scalps. The unions plus Occupy plus the remnants of the '08 Obama campaign have not. Perhaps that will change if a Republican wins the White House - but until and unless the left loses that fight too, we won't know.

3) Yet at the same time, Wisconsin tells us less than one might think about the outcome of that White House vote. The exit polls in Wisconsin show that state still favoring President Obama. The issue map in November will be very different: expect to hear a lot more about how the Republican call for the repeal of Obamacare will mean higher prescription drug prices for seniors. Nor can Republicans expect the same huge money advantage nationwide as in Wisconsin.

4) Democrats interpret Wisconsin not as a battle over wages and benefits, but as an illegitimate attempt to rewrite the rules of politics to their permanent disadvantage. They are confirmed in a view that the Republican party is a force for concentrated wealth, contemptuous of democracy and fair play. Democrats will emerge from this loss radicalized, not chastened.