If you feel like picking a fight, avoid picking it with someone who is stronger than you.
Wisconsin Democrats and their organized labor allies forgot this piece of wisdom when they decided to try to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Or, possibly, they just overestimated their own strength and underestimated that of the Republican governor.
Either way, they suffered a humiliating defeat when Walker beat back Tuesday’s recall vote in a quite predictable race that was not as close as public pre-election polling indicated. This was, after all, the fourth time in less than two years that Walker’s opponents fell short of their goals.
Walker vanquished Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett - the same man Walker beat in order to win the governor’s race in November 2010. Remember the adage, often attributed to Albert Einstein (incorrectly, as best I can determine), that insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results?
To be fair, Barrett was not the first choice of many of the labor groups that desperately wanted to remove Walker as payback for his successful assault on public employee unions’ powers and privileges. Barrett beat former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, who was most unions’ first choice, in a divisive four-way primary last month. Although Walker’s opponents rallied behind Barrett after his victory, the primary battle cost time and money that they badly needed for their fight against the incumbent.
The self-styled progressives faced other harbingers of doom. Their drive to recapture control of Wisconsin’s House and Senate via other recall elections last year fell short. (They scored a Pyrrhic victory this week by winning an open state Senate seat that gave them a majority , but the Wisconsin Legislature is no longer in session.) A state Supreme Court race that pitted a perceived conservative incumbent against a perceived liberal challenger (officially, the state’s judicial races are nonpartisan) resulted in a narrow victory for the incumbent.
Perhaps the surest sign of all that Wisconsin Democrats were about to lose came from President Obama. He conspicuously avoided the state last weekend when making campaign appearances in Minnesota and Chicago, right in Wisconsin’s backyard.
At that point, all the public polling pointed toward a close election, albeit with Walker in the lead. But a lot of private polling goes on in modern politics. As a reality check, I make a point of watching what politicians - especially the most powerful ones, who tend to have access to the best data - actually do, rather than paying attention to what they say.
If Obama had thought Barrett’s race was close enough to win, he would have barnstormed the state to help produce a victory, and then he would have taken some credit for it. But the president clearly knew last week that this was a lost cause. So he registered his support for Barrett in just about the weakest way anyone could imagine - with a Monday night Twitter post, which opined that Barrett “would make an outstanding governor.” Obama might have added “if he ever gets the chance,” but tweets are limited to 140 characters.
This Wisconsin misadventure promises nothing but disaster for the president. Four times now, in less than two years, the state’s Democrats marshaled their forces and went to the polls, and four times they came up short.
Wisconsin is not a crimson-red state like Texas - not by a long shot. But a state that Democrats once took nearly for granted in presidential races is no longer a lock, no longer a lean, no longer even truly a toss-up. At this moment, in this economy, under this presidential administration, Wisconsin leans Republican. It’s not a strong lean, but it’s a lean.
In the right circumstances, an incumbent president could overcome this tilt. These are not the right circumstances. Obama is running amid sluggish economic growth, a torpid job market, flatlined housing, a gusher of federal red ink and a gathering financial storm in Europe. The recent Wisconsin battles have repeatedly tested the Democrats’ major campaign arguments: that Republicans are opposed to the interests of working- and middle-class families. Those arguments are attracting plenty of support - nearly 1 million signatures on Walker’s recall petitions were evidence of that - but not enough support to win elections. Not right now and not in Wisconsin, anyway.
How important will Wisconsin be in November? It depends on three things: Florida, Ohio and Virginia. The way I read the Electoral College map, Mitt Romney needs to win all three of those states to have any realistic chance of defeating Obama. If Romney fails to sweep those states, Wisconsin will probably not matter.
But if Romney carries those three states, he will need either Wisconsin or New Hampshire to put him over the top. New Hampshire looks like a genuine tossup. Wisconsin, though still winnable for Obama if everything goes perfectly, appears to be in Romney’s favor right now. I am not the least bit persuaded by claims from this week’s exit polls in Wisconsin that the same voters who had just backed Walker would favor Obama, his philosophical opposite. With voters, too, it is more useful to watch what they do than what they say.
At this point, the president’s genuine supporters in Wisconsin must be getting weary of going to the polls over and over, only to come up short each time. That’s not good for Democratic morale, and in turn, that’s not good for the president’s re-election prospects.
Sometimes you can’t back down from a fight. Sometimes you have no choice but to start one. And sometimes, even when someone makes you really mad, it is wisest to size up the opposition, lower your fists and walk away.