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Walker's win bolsters tea party, weakens Democrats

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
June 6, 2012 -- Updated 1407 GMT (2207 HKT)
The state Capitol in Madison became a scene of fierce protests in 2011 after Gov. Scott Walker's moves on public sector unions.
The state Capitol in Madison became a scene of fierce protests in 2011 after Gov. Scott Walker's moves on public sector unions.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Recall vote a huge victory for conservatives, tea party
  • He says Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker faced multibillion-dollar budget deficit
  • Bennett says cutting worker benefits erased deficit, lowered taxes, helped state economy
  • He says Obama didn't fulfill vow to stand with workers who lost collective bargaining on benefits

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- With Tuesday's recall vote, taxpayers in Wisconsin affirmed Gov. Scott Walker's reforms and put an end to the state's unholy alliance between big government and big labor. The reign of entrenched public sector unions may be over and a new era of self-governing fiscal responsibility beginning.

The importance of Walker's victory cannot be understated. This is, after all, Wisconsin -- the birthplace of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and the first state to permit collective bargaining. Not since Ronald Reagan in 1984 has Wisconsin voted Republican, and in 2008, Obama took the state by a whopping 14 points.

Analysis: Wisconsin now tougher for Obama, but still uphill climb for Romney

And yet Walker won by seven points Tuesday, becoming the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch also beat the recall. The Wisconsin saga ends close to where it began: a sobering defeat for organized labor and a stunning victory for fiscal conservatives.

William J. Bennett
William J. Bennett

Walker took office in 2011 facing a $3.6 billion budget hole. He had few options at his disposal to balance the budget: raise taxes, make draconian cuts or go after the sweetheart public employee pension and health care plans. He bravely chose the latter, requiring public employees to pay 5% of their salaries toward their pensions (they paid virtually nothing before) and 12.6% of their health care premiums (less than what private and federal employees pay). Furthermore, he ended collective bargaining except for wages and made automatic union dues optional.

Walker's Wisconsin win big blow to unions, smaller one to Obama

Before Walker's reforms, Wisconsin state employees enjoyed salary and benefits that were about 28% higher than comparable private sector workers, according to a new study from the American Enterprise Institute. Even after his much decried reforms, Wisconsin public employees' total compensation is still about 22% greater -- $81,637 versus $67,068 -- than similar private sector workers.

Walker: 'Time to move Wisconsin forward'
Politician slapped in the face
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Yet how were Walker's proposals received? Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to avoid votes; up to 100,000 protesters stormed the state Capitol in Madison, climbing through windows and trashing the building; teachers handed out fake doctors' notes to skip school and protest, some even bringing their students with them; signs and fliers compared Scott Walker to Adolf Hitler; a Democratic state senator cursed out a Republican lawmaker; and lastly, Democrats initiated recall elections on state senators, the lieutenant governor and Walker.

In the end, Democrats have little, if anything, to show for it. That's because Walker's reforms have done everything he promised. He recouped the state's budget shortfall without raising taxes. School districts that enacted his reforms were able to meet budgets without firing teachers, enlarging class sizes or cutting programs. In fact, some even reported budget surpluses. Property taxes fell for the first time in 13 years, and Walker cited figures that showed Wisconsin has added 35,000 jobs since he took office.

The public sector union machine, once a colossus of Democratic power, looks weak in the wake of Walker's triumph. With mandatory union dues now extinct, union membership has withered in Wisconsin. AFSCME's Local 24 in Madison has seen its ranks drop from 22,300 to 7,100, while AFSCME's statewide membership has been cut in half. In short, Walker has broken the long running cycle of handoffs and paybacks between union leadership and state politicians.

Where is the Democrat outrage? In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama promised, "(I)f American workers are being denied their right to organize when I'm in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States." In February 2011, President Obama called Walker's proposals an "assault" on unions.

But less than two years later, Obama wouldn't set foot in Wisconsin before the recall. His endorsement of Tom Barrett came via Twitter, hardly instilling confidence in the Democratic cause. Public sector unions were left out in the Wisconsin cold.

On the other hand, the untold story of the Wisconsin saga may be the resurgence of the tea party. Local tea party groups, like the Racine tea party, and national groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, have hosted dozens of rallies for Walker, recruiting volunteers from around the country and pouring in campaign donations in unparalleled numbers. Any rumors of a tea party demise have been short-lived.

Come November, Wisconsin will be the conservative rallying cry. Fittingly, the Badger fight song may very well be the anthem:

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!

Plunge right through that line!

Run the ball clear down the field,

A touchdown sure this time ...

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

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