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posted: 6/10/2012 5:00 AM

Zero-sum means everybody loses

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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.

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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.

It turns out 17 percent of likely President Obama supporters voted to retain the Republican Walker because they felt 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.

The first lesson is that we cannot make broad conclusions about the recall results as impacting the presidential race. Exit polls that show Obama leading Romney in Wisconsin by 9 points are evidence the recall was not affecting the presidential race.

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. Former state Sen. John Lehman defeated incumbent Sen. Van Wanggaard by 779 votes. 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, particularly citizen watchdog groups. NBC World News Tonight reports that more money was spent in this recall election than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spent to get his presidential nomination.

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, which could push the total recall price tag over $60 million. Such a lopsided war, 7 to 1 for Walker, cannot help but give an unfair "free speech" advantage to the side with the wealthier contributors.

No one wants a presidential election that divides along class warfare lines. Yet the super PACs that the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling introduced are permitting millionaires and billionaires to spend as if their credit cards have no limit. Citizen Watchdog groups and dogged reporting here and there have uncovered the super PACs' anonymous contributors; and they're not exactly Obama's grass-roots Internet contributors.

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.

Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who was caught on video with Walker promising to break union bargaining power, gave $510,000 to the governor's campaign. This recall election was a battle carried out by a special interest governor against the interests of public labor unions.

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. In doing this, Walker followed the strategy that so many Republicans in Washington, D.C., have been following in Congress for the last three years. Washington gridlock, cliff-hanging confrontations and endless showdowns have come to Wisconsin.

That's zero-sum politics, as practiced in Washington, and with which we're all too familiar. It supposes one's own side is always right, and the other side is not merely always wrong, but sinfully wrong -- and unworthy to be in public service.

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. Think of where our economy could be if they had elected to cooperate with President Obama.

I understand that in gymnastics some moves are counterintuitive. 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. And we certainly don't need the national family to look like Wisconsin's family looks today, frayed and at political war with itself.

It's never too late to inspire civility in our public discourse.

2012, United Features Syndicate Inc.

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