Zero-sum means everybody loses

Published 11:00 pm Monday, June 11, 2012

For all the hype about the Wisconsin recall election echoing across America, dear reader, you wouldn’t know it ended with a whimper, not a bang.

The pollsters were saying Gov. Scott Walker would win, but late polls had the two candidates just 2 percentage points apart. In the end, Walker won with a healthy 7 percent margin.

There are important lessons in the Wisconsin recall election for everyone: citizens, nonprofit groups, corporations, unions, political scientists, independents, Democrats and Republicans. But most of these lessons have nothing to do with the upcoming presidential election.

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It turns out 17 percent of likely President Obama supporters voted against the recall (that is, to retain the Republican Walker) because they feel recall elections should be used only for serious misconduct in office. In fact, Wisconsin exit polls showed fully 60 percent of voters felt that using recall for policy differences was not appropriate.

There is a bright note for the Democrats from the Wisconsin election. If an election “squeaker” holds up, they regained control of the Wisconsin Senate with a 17-16 majority. There will likely be a recount, but if it holds, the Democrats will act as balance-of-power brakes on Walker’s anti-public union employees agenda.

Of course, the amounts of money spent in this recall should be of concern to everybody. It may have been a waste of money. The Chicago Tribune reports that one exit poll found that 90 percent of the voters said they had their mind made up before the recall campaign even got underway.

The amount of money spent — $30 million by Walker and $4 million by challenger Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee — also shows an unhealthy infusion of special interest money on both sides.

Labor unions, understandably, poured millions of dollars into the Wisconsin recall effort to unseat Walker, who portrayed his campaign as a courageous effort to stand up to special interests. The reality is that Walker went after the unions as a pledge to wealthy contributors.

Here’s the lesson I think public-spirited citizens, political strategists and people of good will need to learn from the recall: “Zero-sum” politics — where groups are pitted against one another — produces a loss all around.

Walker could have sought to balance the budget with the help of Wisconsin’s public labor unions. Instead, he used the need to balance the budget to attack the institutions that back his opponents.

It may be tempting for Democrats to want to play the zero-sum game, but if they do, we’ll all lose. A pair of University of Georgia political scientists found in a careful study that President Obama is the most moderate president we’ve had since World War II. Zero-sum politics, however, created a myth of him as so bad that Republicans could have no nobler aim than to defeat him. I understand that in gymnastics some moves are counter-intuitive. That is, when the gymnast feels he should fall forward, he really needs to throw his head backward. So it is with zero-sum politics. We need more leaders willing to work together for the common good, not fewer. It’s never too late to inspire civility in our public discourse.

(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)