Role of big labor in Wisconsin recall fight

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," April 9, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


MORDECAI LEE, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE: In the last year, we have turned into the center of the political universe of America. And so this is not just an internal Wisconsin fight. This is a national fight. So many groups, whether we're talking about national labor groups or national business groups want to invest in Wisconsin because they want to win because the Wisconsin results will ripple across the presidential race. This is almost like an early proxy of the presidential race.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Money is pouring in to Wisconsin. The recall election June 5, an effort to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The Democrats are battling out between themselves for that position, the nominees to take on Walker. There are two Democrats pitted against each other, Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, and union leadership prefers the former Dane County commissioner Kathleen Falk. In fact the largest public employee union AFSCME, is running ads directing people to bloggers saying that Barrett supported governor Walker's union crippling legislation, as they put it. Barrett says that is not the case.

We're back with the panel. Juan, this seems like a big fight internally before you get to the big fight of the recall.

JUAN WILLIAMS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE HILL: Absolutely, because, you know, it reminds me a little bit of what happened in Arkansas with Blanche Lincoln where you see the unions come in and say you are not authentically a friend because you have not supported us in every area that we wanted. And I think that is what we are seeing play out now, because the Democrats have to pick someone who can win. At the moment a generic candidate is beating Governor Walker. But once you start to name them specifically, they lose.

And I think there is lots of pressure right now to bring in a bigger named Democrat. But again, the unions aren't concerned of Herb Cole or Russ Feingold coming in, who actually could defeat the governor. They are really interested in someone who will say I will give you collective bargaining rights back. I'm going to clear the table, I'm going to say it's as if he never existed. That is what they are after. This is a statement about union power.

BAIER: Liz we've talked about how this goes well beyond Wisconsin state borders and this is really a proxy fight for all kinds -- really as you heard there, the presidential race as well. Yet the governor's office, Governor Walker, is pointing to success they've had in Wisconsin specifically and something that unions are staying away from about how things changed in the state.

LIZ MARLANTES, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: Yes. I think it's a fascinating situation. Wisconsin has been so interesting for almost two years now. They have been at complete war internally. And it's a highly polarized state. And in that sense I think you could say it's a microcosm of what is going on in the country.

And to that extent, remember, this started, remember, as a budget fight. The state was facing crippling budget deficits and Walker made choices that many Wisconsinites found controversial. As the economy is starting to improve nationally, as certain conditions are starting to get better, you might see some of the wind shifting back a little bit in Walker's favor.

And so, it's so interesting, there have been so few successful recall campaigns. This would be the third if it's successful. And really the only other one that any of us remember is the recall of Grey Davis in California. And it was a really similar situation in some ways. They had a huge, horrible budget deficit. He made this -- tried to address it through a variety of means, including a vehicle licensing fee that people really flipped out about, and he was recalled. Of course, the difference there was that the other side was able to get a charismatic figure to collectively get behind, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And the Democrats in this particular situation have not been able to do that. Russ Feingold said no. They wanted him to do it. So that's an interesting comparison, I think. And if they do fall short it might be because they haven't been able to find a champion that is identifiable to everybody.

BAIER: Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: What the Democrats are deciding right now is whether they want this to be a single issue campaign or whether they want it to be a judgment about the governor, a broader judgment. The mayor of Milwaukee ran against Walker in the previous election cycle and he loss. And he's less steady on the union issue. The unions aren't backing him. So it would be more of a do you like Walker, his governorship? It would be a general statement about Walker governorship and a choice between two candidates. It would be more like a rerun of the original election two years ago.

But if it isn't him it will be a single issue campaign, which is what the unions want. And if it is a single issue campaign, then it becomes national.

I don't think in any way it's a microcosm of the presidential election. I don't think how it's decided is going to tell us anything about which way Wisconsin will go if it's a Romney-Obama race. But it's national in the sense that other states will look at this and decide are the governors going to risk curtailing the powers of government unions after Wisconsin if the governor is recalled?

BAIER: You don't think it will embolden union leaders, it will embolden the left in not only getting out the vote for this recall but really mobilizing come November?

KRAUTHAMMER: I'm not sure that what matters right now for them is the presidential election. It's state after state defeating the attempts of Republican governors, especially ones that were elected in 2010, as in Ohio the unions have defeated Kasich when he tried to impose pretty strict curtailment on the unions. In state after state it's what's happening inside the state. It's not about the federal level. The federal level I think is distinct.

The unions understand that if they lose Wisconsin it will be the third attempt of repealing what happened in Wisconsin. The state Supreme Court election was lost by the unions, and the recall election did not succeed in changing the Senate and making at it a Democratic one. So this is the third attempt. Three strikes and you are out. The unions understand they're gonna get wiped out in other states as well and that's why they are pouring millions of dollars into this.

BAIER: Juan, what about to Liz's point? If the economy starts to slowly improve and it improves in Wisconsin, can Walker then in the time between now and June 5 run on changes that have been made since this law was enacted?

WILLIAMS: He can point to changes, especially changes in terms of budget reductions, in terms of the pension expenditures, or pension debt -- he can say that. The question is, what do people hear? Because lots of people in Wisconsin are unaccustomed to Wisconsin being the center of the political universe and all this fighting. There is a lot of static, and people don't like it. Does it become a referendum on Walker or what he's actually accomplished, or what I think what the unlikelihood that Feingold or Cole get in, it's going to be largely, I think, about Walker and the union. So it's Walker versus the unions.

BAIER: That is it for the panel. But stay tuned to see a tenacious combatant in a battle.

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