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What does Wisconsin mean?

In the permanent campaign of today’s brass knuckle politics, it means a happy day for Republicans and a downbeat day for Democrats.But even if you only care

In the permanent campaign of today’s brass knuckle politics, it means a happy day for Republicans and a downbeat day for Democrats.

But even if you only care about winning the next heavyweight contest, Wisconsin is a poor guide to future performance in November.

No question, Scott Walker’s win is a personal triumph. But it hardly makes his signature policies a template for conservatives across the country. In fact, Walker lost his claim to be a Reaganesque model for governors the moment the recall went ahead.

How’s that? In Walker’s case, the result of the recall marks the end of his old style of governing: he almost certainly managed to lose control of the state senate, which means the days are over when he could railroad through highly partisan legislation.

That change was already telegraphed by the style of his recall campaign. He hardly campaigned as a union-buster. In fact, his issues list starts with the jobs recovery in Wisconsin (led by manufacturing), continues with education reform, and goes on to the healthcare safety net that is Medicaid.

Any conservative governor considering a similar path now knows they run the serious risk of confronting a determined and organized opposition that costs tens of millions of dollars to defeat. Even if you can raise that kind of money from the Koch brothers and other super-wealthy ideologues, you’re still going to turn yourself into a divisive figure in a way that imperils the rest of your agenda.

And to what end? Labor unions are indeed more powerful in the public sector than their private counterparts. But that isn’t saying very much. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership represents close to 12 per cent of all workers, compared to 20 per cent in 1983, two years after Reagan took on the air traffic controllers. The decline in union membership since the post-war period has been unstoppable.

Public sector unions represent a lopsided 37 per cent of workers compared to about 7 per cent in the private sector. So Walker’s battle with those unions is indeed targeted at the labor movement’s last remaining sector of relative strength.

But let’s be honest: the biggest threat to public sector unions isn’t Walker or the Koch brothers or even Karl Rove, in their Ahab-style quest for the Great White Whale of a permanent majority. It’s the prospect of several years of budget cuts that are thinning out the ranks of teachers, first responders and government functionaries across the country – and much of Europe too, for that matter.

Unions remain a vital part of the Democratic coalition, and a vital source of protection for workers. But Barack Obama could never have won in 2008 by leaning heavily on the unions alone. His coalition was far broader and needs to remain broad if he is to win re-election this year.

That in part helps to explain why the Obama campaign can also take some comfort from the recall results. When exit polls give your candidate a 7-point margin over Mitt Romney, including a lead on the central question of the economy, that comfort is no small consolation.

Wisconsin showed that GOP voters remain organized and enthusiastic about voting, even if some of that fire has died since 2010.

But they have a presidential candidate in November whose message hardly tracks with Walker’s issues list. Romney’s approach to manufacturing jobs is muddied by his desire for Detroit to go bankrupt. His approach to education is to cut – and possibly eliminate or merge – the department of education. And his approach to healthcare is to avoid any discussion of his signature achievement in Massachusetts.

Obama’s exit poll numbers in Wisconsin points to a broader trend: the rebound in manufacturing means the rust belt states and districts are not likely to be the battlegrounds that matter in November. If you want to find those, you have to drive a long way from union strongholds. States like Virginia and North Carolina, not Wisconsin and Michigan, will surely decide 2012 and the president’s fate.

Richard Wolffe is an msnbc Political Analyst, beloved NOWist, and author of Renegade: The Making of a President