Friday, August 12, 2011

The Conservative Case For Recalling Governor Scott Walker

In the entire history of the United States, only two governors have been removed from office via citizen recall. North Dakotans recalled Republican/Nonpartisan League governor Lynn Frazier in 1921, while in 2003 Californians showed Democrat Gray Davis the door in a circus-like recall election that brought Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger to power.
Frazier and Davis were recalled during times of great economic stress in their states, and both were accused of mismanagement. Given that our system of checks and balances gives the legislature significant power in shaping economic policy, the ineffectiveness of said policy can never be the fault of the governor alone. Thus the recalls of Frazier and Davis were blatantly political and probably represent an abuse of the recall statute.

Indeed, take a look at the petition circulated as justification for recalling Davis:

[Governor Davis' actions were a] "gross mismanagement of California Finances by overspending taxpayers' money, threatening public safety by cutting funds to local governments, failing to account for the exorbitant cost of the energy, and failing in general to deal with the state's major problems until they get to the crisis stage."

Virtually every clause of that petition (especially "failing in general to deal with the state's major problems until they get to the crisis stage") can be said about all 50 of the nation's governors at all times. Crappy job performance is a great reason to remove someone from office in a general election, but a recall ought to require something more substantial.

Should a recall effort against Governor Scott Walker get off the ground, his enablers at WMC, WTMJ, and WPRI will no doubt frame the effort as pure labor/leftist politics. But I think the case for a Walker recall is conservative in nature, and should be supported by all citizens who believe in good government regardless of party affiliation. Two main arguments support the recall: (1) the bait and switch, and (2) abuse of power.

First, the bait and switch: We all expect politicians to say one thing during the campaign and do something else once in office. What we DON'T expect is that the "something else" includes immediate overturning of 50 years of established precedent.

Mr. Walker ran for office on a platform of asking for greater state employee contributions to health care premiums and the pension fund. He was clear that if the state employee unions would not agree to greater contributions, he would support continued furloughs or layoffs. He did not run on a platform of union busting.

Baiting the electorate with the promise of being a tough negotiator and then making the switch to union busting mode sets a dangerous precedent for governing. Absent an attempt to recall Walker, the message to future gubernatorial candidates is clear: you can safely overturn settled precedent(s) or laws that you disagree with without even having to be crystal clear about your intentions during the campaign. The result is weasel politics of the worst kind. 

Second, the abuse of power: The governor has the duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." No governor has to like state statutes governing state employment labor relations, and he's free to advocate for changes to the rules. Especially given that those rules have been around for decades, it's not unreasonable to expect that radical rewriting of them would be preceded at a minimum by legislative committee hearings, public hearings throughout the state, and vigorous debate on the floors of the Senate and Assembly. That's just good government.

Citizens need to communicate to Mr. Walker that in the phrase "faithful execution of the laws," the word "execution" does not mean "kill." Governors ought not have the power to kill off laws or statutes they do not like on the basis of manufactured crises, ideology, or crass politics.

Should a recall election against Mr. Walker actually take place, millions of dollars worth of outside spending will almost guarantee that Republican voters will stand by him. That's unfortunate, because the case for recall outlined in this post is actually a very conservative one. Conservatives are supposed to value law, precedent, and tradition; for real conservatives change ought to take place only when reasoned argument dictates and only when transparent deliberative procedures have been followed.

Conservatives reject (or should reject) any change that is the result of the application of raw power to overrun political opponents.  Liberals should reject that kind of change too.

If the Wisconsin citizens decide to recall Scott Walker, they will be making a conservative statement about the standard of governing behavior we expect from our Chief Executive. The entire nation would benefit from hearing that statement.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My Take on the Recalls

Last night the Republicans maintained control of the Wisconsin State Senate by winning 4 of 6 recall elections. For critics of Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature's blatant disregard for "small r" republican principles, the results were a major disappointment.

When the recall drive started, I honestly thought the Democrats would take at least 4, and possibly all 6 of the contests. I also thought they would win most of them by wide margins. So what happened?

First, let's stipulate that in any two party partisan election, the Republican and Democrat both start off with about 30% of the vote each (this is called "the base."). The remaining 40% are not "moderates;" rather, they are independents for whom campaign rhetoric matters. Winning campaigns are able to secure the base and the majority of independents.

In February and March I thought that the Republicans had been so disrespectful of basic rules of governance that the Democrats in recall elections would not only win the independents but also cut into the Republican base. That didn't happen, even though the Dems ran some excellent candidates. Pundits and Dem operatives will blame the media, or outside spending, or the fact that the elections took place in August, or any number of external factors, but I think at root the problem was ineffective Democratic messaging.

Most voters, especially the independents, believe (correctly) that elected officials should not be recalled simply for taking tough votes. I personally would not vote to recall an elected official just because he or she took a vote I disagreed with.

Unfortunately, the moment Democratic Party advertising started focusing on the fact that the Republicans had voted for massive cuts in school aids, voted for tax cuts for the rich, etc. etc., they allowed the Republican candidates to assume a victim pose: "I am being punished for taking tough votes." The independent  voters, I am convinced, do not approve of the governor's budgets . . . but neither do they approve of removing an official from office simply for voting for those budgets.

An independent voter WILL vote to recall, in my judgement, when it can be shown that the elected representative did not meet his or her responsibility to REPRESENT constituents. A representative refusing to represent is most certainly exercising misconduct in office. This is especially true for state and federal elected officials, who are confronted with legislation that is often the product of narrow lobbies (e.g. ALEC)  whose interests conflict with the representatives' constituents.

To represent does not mean to poll constituents and always vote the majority's wishes. But it does mean to listen genuinely to all sides, to be responsive to requests for information, to be willing to change one's mind when clear and compelling evidence requires it, to advocate for the most transparent government possible, to slow down the deliberative process when it is clear that insufficient debate has taken place, to do whatever is in one's power to prevent a vote on major legislation until sufficient public hearings have been held, and be a role model of respectful communication with all constituents.

The principles outlined in the last paragraph are "small r" republican; they are what we should expect from all elected officials regardless of party affiliation or office held. What Democrats needed to show in these recall elections was that after the election of Scott Walker the Republicans stopped being republican. Instead, the Republicans acted like apparatchiks; rubber stamping the governor's agenda, dividing the state by pitting public employees against the private sector, shutting down debate at the time when debate was most needed, and simply failing to communicate with their constituents.

My view is that every Republican on the ballot yesterday deserved to be recalled because they failed to uphold the basic principles of republicanism. To violate ALL these principles, as the Republicans most certainly did over the last 8 months, is most certainly malfeasance in office. Thus their behavior would fall under the strict recall language of the state of Georgia endorsed by the Oshkosh Northwestern today.

In short, when Democratic advertising started to critique the Republicans for their votes, they took the focus off of the Republicans' heavy handed governing procedures. Those procedures showed open contempt for some pretty basic rules of republicanism, and should be opposed by all civic minded people regardless of party or platform.