In February 2011, Walker announced his plan to limit the subjects covered by collective bargaining for public employees, compel them to contribute more to their health care and pension plans, stop government from collecting dues automatically on unions' behalf and require public employee unions to hold annual certification elections. The plan put the issue of unionized government in the national spotlight, where it has remained.
With Walker's victory, his reform plan will remain in place. Wisconsin will, once again, be a policy laboratory. The reforms will test whether reducing the power of public-sector unions leads to significant improvement in the state's fiscal picture and the efficiency of government. If Wisconsin proves successful, other states with heavily unionized governments may be tempted to experiment with similar reforms. The initial results have been promising: Teacher layoffs were avoided, property taxes declined and the state produced a projected budget surplus of $155 million for 2013.
Walker's proposals last year galvanized 60,000 protesters in Madison, led by public employee unions, while Democratic state legislators fled to neighboring Illinois. Opponents then challenged the new law in court, even making a normally quiet judicial election into a spectacle. When that failed, they sought to recall six Republican state senators who voted for the bill. Finally, they collected nearly a million signatures to force a recall of the governor.
While the unions and their liberal allies generated much heat, they found themselves trying to restore the status quo ante. With little positive vision into which to channel that energy, they failed.
Yet, the Wisconsin saga shows that even after a string of defeats -- in a state Supreme Court election, the state Senate recalls and now the gubernatorial recall -- public employee unions remain powerful political forces. That's why most governors and mayors never challenge them the way Walker did. Despite their defeat in Wisconsin, they are likely to remain a significant element of the national political landscape, with many politicians loath to cross them.
Wisconsin also illustrates the abuses of the recall mechanism. The state has had 14 elected state government officials involved in recall elections in the last year. The state has been engulfed in a permanent campaign. The Badger State's leading newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, endorsed Walker, arguing that elected officials should not be recalled simply for policy differences. Some 60 percent of voters in exit polls agreed. The paper deemed it politically unwise to disrupt the legitimate terms of elected officials barring corruption or incapacity.
Nonetheless, Wisconsin is part of a disturbing trend. According to commentator Andrew Rotherham, "there have been more recall elections for [public] officials since 1990 than there were between 1908 and 1989." Given the intensity of polarization and national party divisions, this doesn't bode well for good governance. Like their cousins the initiative and referendum, recalls were designed in the Progressive Era to empower the people. However, they have become a favorite tool of well-heeled interests.
Finally, the recall election has backfired badly on the Democrats. The Republicans now have an extensive campaign apparatus in Wisconsin and momentum on their side. This bodes ill for President Obama, who won the state in 2008, and needs to do well in the Midwest to win re-election in 2012.
Daniel DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of "Engines of Change: Party Factions in American Politics 1868-2010" (Oxford).