NEAL CONAN, HOST:
While incumbent Scott Walker appears to have a solid lead in the opinion polls, Wisconsin Democrats hope to unseat the governor in a recall election next month. Some state senators and the lieutenant governor will defend their seats as well. The issue, of course, is the bargaining rights of state employees. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, lifelong Democrat and career educator Jonathan Zimmerman says he's appalled by Governor Walker's policies, but he warns fellow liberals recalls can cut both ways.
Is it appropriate to recall politicians because of a difference of opinion? What rates a recall? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is still with us here in Studio 3A. Jonathan Zimmerman joins us from a studio in Philadelphia. He teaches history and education at New York University. Thanks very much for coming in today.
JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN: It's great to be here.
CONAN: And you say in your op-ed that crimes, corruption, incompetence, those are all valid reasons for a recall.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes. And they were the original impetus for the recall itself. You know, the recall was a progressive-era reform of about 100 years ago. And the effort was to try to root out politicians that were on the take, that were corrupt. And I think that we should restrict it to its original purpose rather than expanding the purpose, which is, I think, what we're doing now.
CONAN: Nothing in the law says it's restricted to those particular offenses.
ZIMMERMAN: That's right. Although interestingly, American federalism(ph) being what it is, there are some states where the recall law actually does say you can only be recalled for things like corruption. Wisconsin is not among those states. That is the law in Wisconsin. It doesn't specify the reason.
CONAN: And you cite two names to those who say, wait a minute, he's done terrible things in office.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, Gray Davis and Dianne Feinstein. Gray Davis, of course, was only the second governor in American history to be recalled. That was in 2003. At the time, Feinstein made a very - since become famous statement saying, look, this guy was elected a couple of months ago, re-elected in fact, and his opponents didn't like the outcome of the election, so they're trying to, you know, have another one. And it's interesting that Feinstein herself, when she was the mayor of San Francisco, was actually also the target of a recall campaign.
Interestingly, after she signed into effect one of the most restrictive handgun laws - handgun control laws, an anti-gun control, a pro-gun group started collecting petitions to recall her. And I find that really important and also scary because, well, I'm an advocate of gun control and of abortion rights and of many of the other things that many Democrats hold sacred. And I'm terrified at the idea that somebody that I elected holds those views could be a target of a recall campaign, like Feinstein was, simply because they hold those views.
CONAN: Ken, the recall process, well, is Jonathan Zimmerman, our guest, correct? Has the purpose of it changed over the past 10 or 20 years?
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Well, as Jonathan points out, there's only been two governors in history recalled, Lynn Frazier of North Dakota in 1921, and Gray Davis in 2003. So it's not that so many people have been recalled, but there have been so many attempts that they go on and on and on. And I think you really don't need any reason. You could, you know, if a politician looks at you cross-eyed, you know, you can recall him too. And that's the fear of it. Look, there are Democratic arguments against Scott Walker about the rights of unions and the things that, you know, whether he promised, whether he went back on his pledges when he was elected governor, you know, two years ago.
But the point is, as he points out - as Jonathan points out, this could just spiral to retribution after retribution after retribution. In Washington alone, when the Democrats went after Robert Bork in 1987 (unintelligible) Republicans said, OK, we're going to go after Jim Wright. And the Democrats said, OK, we'll go after Newt Gingrich. It's not that simple, but it seems to be a tit-for-tat mentality in Washington that could very well happen in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
CONAN: And Fred Zimmerman - excuse me, Jonathan Zimmerman, you point out it's not merely that recalls could escalate, and the purposes for them be - could come more petty, but that it could affect the behavior of politicians once they are elected.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. You know, I think that's another really kind of compelling reason to be very strict, to limit it in the way we use recall, especially in these times when everything is so carefully poll-tested and focus-grouped. You know, do we really want our elected leaders to be looking behind their back and thinking, gee, if I take this unpopular position, will I be recalled? President Taft, of all people, William Howard Taft, in 1913, after he had lost the presidency, he wrote a book in which he made this since much quoted quip in which he said, you know, people like Washington and Lincoln probably would have been recalled in their time because every statesmen, now stateswoman, that we hold sacred took on popular positions in their time.
I mean, in fact, that's one of the things that we expect from our leaders. But I think if we have this expansive idea of the recall where you can recall somebody because you don't like the position that they're taking, I think it's going to become less likely that our politicians take bold and unpopular stances.
CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University. He wrote "Governor Scott Walker and the Danger of the Recall Movement" in last week's Los Angeles Times. So what rates are recall? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we're going to start with Fred Kessler, who's on the line with us from Milwaukee, a Democratic state representative from Wisconsin. Nice to have you with us, sir.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE FRED KESSLER: Thank you very much for letting me join you.
CONAN: Thanks for calling in.
KESSLER: I wanted to tell you the reason that I think many of us in Wisconsin are supporting the recall and - is that during the course of the campaign, Governor Walker never talked about the fact that he was going to ask for a change to the law to repel the rights of public employees their engage in collective bargaining. He actually only talked about that at a speech before the Milwaukee Press Club that occurred two weeks after the election, and it stunned us. He put it into a budget repair bill and that is what triggered off the walk outs from colleagues in the state Senate and triggered off a filibuster by the 39 of us out of the 99 who are members of the lower house of the legislature.
CONAN: Don't elections matter? I mean, if the Republicans fair and square, they get to make policy, or they get to at least put it to the legislature.
KESSLER: Well, I think the elections do matter, but I think you have to be honest and lay out a platform. You have to tell people what you're going to do, and I think most of the people who are running lay out an idea of what will happen. And this is not something that was a crisis that suddenly came up and was not anticipated. I mean, we've had collective bargaining rights for public employees for 50 years. And so what he did was he surprised everybody. He didn't run on this. And then once he got a big enough margin, he turned around and added a devastating item to the agenda.
RUDIN: Fred, to me, this all feels very spurious to me. I mean, if Scott Walker said, I will limit - curtail the rights of public employees, you don't think there'd still be a recall if he was elected, if he did it? I mean, the fact that just because he didn't say it - I mean, President Obama - every president says they would do things, and if they don't do it, do we recall them because they didn't say it? I don't...
KESSLER: No. I think here it was a major campaign, and I don't think there would have been a momentum for recall if we had been elected. It's just like if he had, for instance, announced I'm going to support a right-to-work law. Well, that certainly would have triggered off all sorts of people. But you have to understand, a number of public employees actually supported it.
One of the most fascinating thing that's in the state Senate recalls that occurred last year, probably the strongest community that supported Governor Walker in central Wisconsin was the city of Waupun, which has a prison. And in the state Senate recall, that became one of the strongest Democratic communities because the prisoner - the prison guards were absolutely stunned that this candidate that they supported suddenly took away what they believed was their job security and the cost and the things that they had. And this was more than just pensions and wages and things like that. This is work rules. This is seniority. This is what do you think would change this. All these things was - that was so disrupted to the orderly eyes that people had already had over a number of years.
CONAN: Jonathan Zimmerman, I wonder if you have anything to say to your fellow Democrat.
ZIMMERMAN: Well, absolutely. I mean, first of all, I mean, I share all of his concerns about what Scott Walker has done. I'm a big supporter of unions, including civil employee unions and especially teacher unions, as an educator, and yet I do contest not what he's saying about Walker, but what he's saying about the recall, and I think it's important to draw a distinction there. Look, is it arguable that Walker, in some ways, dissembled that he said one thing and did another? I think it - I think there's a lot of evidence for that. And that, indeed, makes him human. I think everybody does that, including politicians.
KESSLER: I think...
ZIMMERMAN: And I think one of the reasons that we have elections is to hold them to account for that. Ken mentioned President Obama. I'm also a supporter of President Obama, but I recognize that he, too, has flip-flopped on several important issues. To me, the most important one is Guantanamo Bay. You recall, and Mr. Kessler will, that when he was running, he said he would close Guantanamo Bay. He has not. I could list many other items and, indeed, listing them as a supporter of Obama. I don't think anybody would reasonably say, he should be recalled for saying one thing and doing another.
It's important to understand also that the Founding Fathers deliberate this point at some length because under the Articles of the Confederation, before the Constitution, there was a recall provision. And so they debated whether to include a recall provision for Congress people, and they decided against it. I think they made the right call. And I would ask Mr. Kessler and others who are demanding the recall of Scott Walker, would we want to amend the Constitution to allow the recall of Congress people who are as deceptive in their campaign promises as Scott Walker? Given the Congress' approval rating, that was at eight percent, I rather doubt it.
CONAN: I'm sorry, Jonathan Zimmerman. Let's get an answer from Fred Kessler.
KESSLER: OK. My - there's a different issue here and that is that this isn't something where Walker said one thing and then did another. This is one where Walker never talked about it during the campaign, and it was absolutely devastating to teachers and all the public employees.
Now, I'm not a public employee, but I was a judge for 11 years in Wisconsin. I know that the tough decisions that people have to make. And even as a legislator, I have to make these tough decisions. But I think that in issues such as this, if you know that you're going to do something like this, you have a moral obligation to tell the voters, this is one of the things that I'm concerned about. He never did that.
CONAN: Fred Kessler...
KESSLER: I'm probably going off the air, but I appreciate that you've taken my call and given me the opportunity to participate in this discussion.
CONAN: Well, thanks for listening. Thanks for calling in. We're talking about recalls with Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, and with political junkie Ken Rudin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Chris(ph). Chris with us from Alexandria in Minnesota.
CHRIS: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
CHRIS: I was an elected official for 12 years. And if (unintelligible) was enough jobs, I cannot fathom running for office knowing that upon an unpopular decision being made, you wouldn't even get your four years, your two years, your six years be (unintelligible). We have hard enough time getting quality people in office. If you add to the mix the use of the recall law, which, by the way, I don't think they were ever - I don't think anyone ever envisioned them being used like they are in Wisconsin. I'm no Walker fan. You're going to have people - at least media - it's just - it's a difficult enough job without knowing the rug could be pulled out from under you for a decision you made. In my opinion, if you broke the law, maybe. If you are fraudulent, maybe. But if you just made horrific decisions, even in violation of campaign promises, that is no reason to be recalled. That's a reason to be unelected at the end of the next term.
CONAN: Ken, we saw the case of a governor in Illinois who was charged with a crime, later convicted of several crimes. But before he even went to trial, impeached by the Illinois state Senate.
RUDIN: Yeah. That's very similar to what Chris is saying that, sure, if you do some kind of, you know, kind of conduct where you break the law, there's impeachment, there are indictments, there are things like that. But as Chris points out and as Jonathan points out, that just because he, you know, has an unpopular position as governor - I mean, you know, look, you always have to be accountable if they don't have - because you have to run for reelection, but to suffer - go through a recall six months later, a year later, there'll be no profiles in courage in ++politics.
CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call.
CHRIS: Yeah. Thank you.
CONAN: And let's see if we can get - this is Max. Max calling Oakland. Of course, California another state that has recalls.
MAX: Yes, we do. I'm calling partially because of my interest in recalls as a result of being involved in the coalition that's trying to - that has tried to recall Mayor Quan, and it's coming from - she's getting it from both sides...
CONAN: Mayor of Oakland.
MAX: ...the conservative folks and from people who are upset with the way the Occupied movement was brutalized here. But I don't want to talk about the specifics. I thought when I called in that I was going to be talking about - maybe talking about the sort of meta-issues of recall, and I heard a lot of Scott Walker. So let me just get to this. My contention is that the rules of the games are laid out, and if the people have outrage, they have every right to use whatever tools are available to them to express that outrage. And what you've got to consider is what's tactically viable. Will you create blowback as a result of a recall? Will you drain your - the target of your outrage, will you drain their bank account, making them fight the recall, making them weak for the next election even if you don't win?
You know, so my point is, basically, I don't see any moral reason to not use the tools that are available to us. I see tactical reasons to consider whether or not you should. Lastly, regarding Walker and other executives who are targets of recalls, wouldn't we end up be in better shape if we have a parliamentary democracy where something like a no-confidence vote can happen midterm? We don't have that in America. And so in many occasions, you know, what the people stuck with, a recall.
CONAN: Hard enough to change the rules on a recall, much less the Constitution to install a parliamentary democracy.
MAX: Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm just wondering if systemically, we have a more contentious situation set up here, you know, as a result of the way we're set up.
CONAN: Max, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And, Jonathan Zimmerman, we just have a few seconds left, but in this partisan climate, it sounds like these rules are going to be used more rather than less.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, and it's depressing. I mean, you know, I write frequently for the popular press, so I get lots of emails, and I can't recall the last time that I've gotten as many emails as I've received about this piece. All of them angry and vituperative. And, of course, those people out there that are op-ed columnists will know that whenever you get an email, you think it proves your point. But in this case, I really think it does. I wrote the piece because I thought that the whole recall movement is kind of one of the worst fruits of this kind of vindictive, hyper-partisan politics that we've created. And in response to that email, I got all of these vindictive, hyper-partisan emails.
CONAN: John - you can find a link to Jonathan Zimmerman's op-ed in Los Angeles Times at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks very much for your time today.
ZIMMERMAN: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
CONAN: And thanks to Ken Rudin. As usual, he will be back with us next Wednesday. Tomorrow, amputees more and more choosing to give up their lower leg and walking better because of it.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.