June isn’t much for political intrigue, but it could be this year.
Two unrelated events will occur that could provide a massive energy boost either to the Democratic Party and President Obama or the Republican Party and Mitt Romney. They are the June 5 recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and the much-anticipated ruling from the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Obama’s health care law.
A recall election and a tussle over the Constitution have nothing, generally, to do with one another. And yet, the Walker recall election and the challenge to the 2010 health care law are knitted together by the most important debate now raging in America—the size and scope of government. What government should do and how it should pay for it—those two questions sit at the heart of the pitched political and legal battles over the future of Walker and the Affordable Care Act.
The outcome of both could significantly alter the political terrain.
Think about these two scenarios:
Scenario No. 1: Democrats defeat Walker and elect Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as his replacement, and weeks later the Supreme Court upholds the health care law. Here are the likely Democratic takeaways:
- The twin victories would galvanize Democrats. The Wisconsin victory would repair the breach that has developed between labor and the Democratic National Committee over investments in the recall effort. A Supreme Court win would keep the health care law and a new vanguard of benefits and protections drafted and fought for by Democrats. This is the stuff of party pride.
- Democrats would see the value, not just in Wisconsin but nationwide, of grassroots mobilization to punish any pol who messes with negotiating rights and public-employee pensions.
- Democrats would regard a Barrett victory as a blow against truckloads of GOP money poured into the state to protect Walker. According to an analysis from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 57 percent of Walker’s donations (now in excess of $25 million) have come from outside Wisconsin. Top-dollar GOP donors like Bob Perry, Sheldon Adelson, and Richard DeVos—certain to play an even bigger role in the general election—are in Walker’s corner. A Barrett victory over Walker would be an immediate elixir for Democrats.
- A “victory” for the health care act would vindicate Obama’s tenacity in pushing for the law’s enactment. Obama could look to the nation and say with a justifiably self-satisfied smile: “See, I told you it was constitutional—even the high court led by Chief Justice John Roberts said so.”
Scenario No. 2: Walker wins and the Supreme Court overturns the individual mandate and the entire health care law. How would that change the world for Republicans?
- Walker’s victory would vindicate a policy—pension reform—that is already high and rising on the GOP agenda in Washington and across the country. The GOP would stop flinching from Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich’s defeat over his pension hair-pull and see Walker as the party’s latter-day Tommy Thompson, a Wisconsin GOP governor who almost single-handedly set the welfare reform movement of the 1990s in motion.
- Republicans would see the viability of using outside, big-money donors (despite the negative publicity) to drive issues. This, I grant you, would not be a revelation. But in a post-Citizens United world, Wisconsin is an acid test of money versus organization. A money win would calm Republicans restive at the sight of so many Obama canvassing and voter-registration efforts in swing states.
- A Walker victory would give Romney hope of winning Wisconsin or, at minimum, forcing Democrats to spend more there. A state that hasn’t gone Republican since 1984 would suddenly be put in play.
- A Supreme Court rejection of the health care law would intensify GOP animosity toward Obama policies and give rise to a new debate in Washington about what health care reform should look like, what it should cost, and how it should be financed.
- A constitutional defeat of the law would also energize Romney, who could silence all remaining GOP sniping over his Massachusetts health care law. Romney would say he used a state-as-laboratory approach that could pass constitutional muster and Obama didn’t. It could also give Romney credibility with independents that he could put coalitions together to solve problems.
There is, of course, a middle (make that muddle) scenario of one side winning in Wisconsin and one side winning in the Supreme Court. The spoils would be divided.
But it’s possible June could go all one way for one party and all one way against another. The swoon could be real.
This article appears in the May 30, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.