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Lowry: The recall rationalization

Published June 9, 2012 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker didn't fail, it was only outspent.

This is the considered verdict of the left after a year and a half of trying to smite Gov. Walker with its terrible swift sword. What began as a crusade to vindicate the rights of public-sector unions ended in a pathetic bleat of a complaint against spending in political campaigns.

"It hurts too much to laugh and I'm too big to cry," Abraham Lincoln said after he lost his Senate bid to Stephen Douglas. Too earnest to laugh and too proud to cry, the left can only rationalize. If the anti-Walker forces hadn't been so badly outspent — and especially if the Supreme Court hadn't unleashed the forces of darkness in its Citizens United decision — Wisconsin voters assuredly would have rejected his reforms.

For the left, Citizens United has practically supplanted Dred Scott as the worst Supreme Court decision of all time. It held that political spending is a form of speech, and therefore corporations and unions can spend freely in elections. The decision came down in January 2010. If its vicious logic made it impossible to recall Scott Walker, everyone determined to do so had fair warning.

In reality, Citizens United had nothing to do with the outcome in Wisconsin. Yes, Walker outspent his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by a margin of roughly 8-1. This wasn't the handiwork of the highest court in the land. A provision in Wisconsin law going back to 1987 gives the target of a recall a window to raise unlimited funds. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it arose when Democratic state senators fighting recalls needed to raise more money for legal expenses, and it passed with bipartisan support.

If the organizers of the recall had done more thinking and less shouting into bullhorns, they might have realized that Walker got a period of free and easy fundraising not available to his eventual Democratic opponent; that he could marshal his resources while Democrats might have to fight it out in a primary until a month before the recall vote; that their assault on Walker had elevated his national profile such that he could raise money from all around the country.

In other words, they might have realized Walker had natural advantages that had nothing to do with Citizens United or any other boogeyman. Sure enough, Walker garnered millions in donations from rich people living outside Wisconsin. Is there something wrong with out-of-state money? Certainly not in such a nationalized race. The whole world was watching, remember?

Of course, outside groups played in a big way in Wisconsin, too. The biggest, the Republican Governors Association, existed prior to Citizens United, and the group's fundraising hasn't been affected by it much. David Koch could give it $1 million as easily prior to the decision as he can now. The RGA spent $9 million in Wisconsin — defending a Republican governor. What else is a governors association for?

In the end, all the money in Texas couldn't have saved Walker if his reforms hadn't been favored by the Wisconsin public. The exit polls say 52 percent of Wisconsinites approved of Walker's measures. Rather than grapple with this highly inconvenient fact, the left rages against a Supreme Court decision.

Its beef isn't so much with Citizens United per se, but the entire line of reasoning — evident in follow-on court decisions — that says free people in a free country should be able to band together and spend to advance whatever cause they like. After all, it wasn't corporations that flooded Wisconsin with money, but engaged individuals interested in the outcome of a momentous contest. The left will now set out to shut down as much of this political activity as possible. Nancy Pelosi is already proposing to amend the First Amendment so a crackdown on spending passes new-and-improved constitutional muster.

The Wisconsin recall was ill-considered petulance; the second act will be a deliberate assault on liberty.