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Opinion: Was the Wisconsin Recall Election a Bellwether for the Nation?

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker greets supporters at an election-night rally June 5, 2012 in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Scott Walker is the governor of the Badger State, but this week he might as well have been running for a second term in the White House. His victory in a recall election is on the political examination table because everyone wants to know how he survived.

The Republican leader of Wisconsin was elected in 2010 on a fiscal reform platform; his major move was to ask most public workers to pay more for health insurance and pension benefits, and strip unionized government employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Walker was opposed by Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom Walker defeated in 2010. After Walker signed legislation implementing spending cuts, unions and their supporters organized massive protests that included taking over the State Capitol.

As expensive as it was divisive

The recall election contest of Walker became “nationalized” and cost over $64 million — a stunning amount for such a contest.

Walker also out-raised Barrett, $30.5 million to $4 million, according to campaign finance filings released at the end of May. Brian Montopoli of CBS News reports that two-thirds of Walker's total came from out-of-state donors, compared to one-fourth of Barrett's total:

Part of the disparity can be explained by the fact that Walker, as a sitting governor facing recall, is not subject to the state's legal limits on campaign contributions under Wisconsin law. Barrett, by contrast, was legally barred from accepting contributions in excess of $10,000 per person.

Former President Bill Clinton, who had been campaigning for Barrett, said that a Walker victory would send the following message to Republicans everywhere in the country:

We're finally going to break every union in America. We're going to break every government in America. We're going to stop worrying about the middle class. We don't give a rip whether poor people will get to work their way into it. We've got our way now. We've got it all. Divide and conquer works.

Republicans in turn claimed that a Barrett win would signal that big spending unions and liberals who are intent on bankrupting states and the federal government will get pushback from the GOP. They also claimed that the voters' decisions should be respected. Finally, Republicans argued that there is a strong coalition on the right in the United States, which would prevail in Wisconsin as well as in other elections this year.

President Obama had endorsed Barrett but stayed away probably because he didn't want a Democratic loss there to be tied in any way to his reelection. Obama operatives have stated in no uncertain terms that this race is a Wisconsin issue and had nothing to do with national politics — which is, in my opinion utterly disingenuous.

Party identification now most significant

All of this comes on top of new data that shows that race and class have now been overshadowed by political identity in the United States. As Dan Balz of the Washington Post writes, “a report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center paints a particularly stark portrait of a nation in which the most significant divisions are no longer based on race, class or sex but on political identity.”

The differences between Democrats and Republicans have been driven largely by the rise of Republican success, and manifested by the Tea Party movement, religion-centered issue campaigns, and conservative media such as Fox and talk radio. In other words, the GOP has gone on the offensive and seriously undermined what was a progressive consensus on many issues for all the decades since FDR and the Great Depression.

Balz again:

Twenty-five years ago, 62 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats said the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Today, 75 percent of Democrats agree with that statement, but the percentage of Republicans who agree has plummeted to 40 percent.

That’s a serious “compassion gap,” as I call it.

Another way to put it is that people are sick of being taxed to death and no longer view welfare and government largesse recipients of any kind, including public employee unions, as worthy of the cost.

These divisions are all reflected in the metaphorical battle that unfolded in the Wisconsin recall election. The bitterness and anger we saw unfold for almost two years in Wisconsin over the Walker “reforms” and the effort to unseat him also speak clearly to why American politics is now gridlocked and more brutal than any other time in recent memory. There is no longer any “compassionate conservatism;” nor are there many of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” left. It’s a race for the left and right corners of the political spectrum with an inverse bell-shaped curve of a declining middle.