The fact that the labor unions and liberal activists failed where the Tea Party largely succeeded sends a very different message, though: It tells officeholders that it’s safer to take on left-wing interest groups than conservative ones (the right outraised and outspent the left by a huge margin in the recall election), safer to cut government than to increase revenue, safer to face down irate public sector employees than irate taxpayers.

A similar message is currently being telegraphed by the respective postures of the two parties in Washington. The House Republicans have spent the past two years taking tough votes on entitlement reform, preparing themselves for an ambitious offensive should 2012 deliver the opportunity to cast those same votes and have them count. The Senate Democrats, on the other hand, have failed to even pass a budget: There is no Democratic equivalent of Paul Ryan’s fiscal blueprint, no Democratic plan to swallow hard and raise middle class taxes the way Republicans look poised to swallow hard and overhaul Medicare. Indeed, there’s no liberal agenda to speak of at the moment, beyond a resounding “no!” to whatever conservatism intends to do.

That “no!” might still be enough to win Barack Obama re-election. But November 2012 will just be one battle in a longer war, and the outcome in Wisconsin suggests that the edge in that war currently (and to some extent unexpectedly, given the demographic trends that favor the left) belongs to a limited government conservatism.