For partisans on the left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is the key issue in Tuesday's recall election. Liberals loathe him and his smackdown of public employees unions. Through their prism, this extraordinary election is the climax of last year's mass protests against Walker in Madison's cruciform state Capitol.

For partisans on the right, the key issue is their sense that public employees see themselves as privileged aristocrats, entitled to wages and benefits well beyond what comparably skilled workers receive in the private sector. Through this prism, Tuesday is about protecting a governor who dared to challenge mighty unions.

Much news coverage focuses on whether Walker's slim lead in opinion polls prophesies victory over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The vote on whether to recall Walker, a Republican, and replace him with Barrett, a Democrat, is a do-over of the 2010 race in which Walker beat Barrett by 6 percentage points.

For most Americans, though, this vote is less about the parochial matter of who governs Wisconsin than it is about a question now raging coast to coast: How much should recession-weary citizens be asked to pay for how much government?

National polling continues to identify governments' spending and debt as issues that animate a big share of the electorate. Politicians often respond that Americans will change that tune when they see how budget reductions slash services. Tuesday's election will inform that debate: Voters will declare whether they do, or don't, regret electing an aggressive cost-cutter as their chief executive.

Lost amid Walker-vs.-Barrett coverage is the dollar impact of changes that Walker and legislative Republicans — several of whom also face recall elections — have delivered. No one seriously disputes that those changes have, as Walker had predicted, given Wisconsin governments and their taxpayers savings that are likely to grow over time. His foes retort that any savings have come at the cost of abusing public employees.

When Walker took office in 2011, Wisconsin faced a biennial deficit of $3.6 billion. He responded with legislation that famously, if briefly, drove Senate Democrats to Illinois, lest majority Republicans have a quorum to pass it. Act 10, as it's known, became law and took effect last June 29. Among many economizing provisions, it requires public workers to contribute about 6 percent of salary to their pensions, and pay about 12 percent of their health insurance premiums.

What most enraged unions was Act 10's limitation of collective bargaining for most workers — although not those in public safety — to wage issues. This in the state that, in 1959, was the nation's first to give collective bargaining rights to public employees. Organized labor knew that restricting bargaining in Wisconsin would embolden officials in other financially stressed states to do the same. Thus the decision: Walker had to be recalled.

In April, 10 months into Act 10, Walker's office announced that his policies already had saved Wisconsin taxpayers more than $1 billion. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did a detailed accounting, verifying more than three-fourths of Walker's claim, with the rest — such as estimated savings from changes to overtime and sick leave — not possible to calculate.

But the big picture isn't lost on many Wisconsinites: By cutting spending, limiting property tax hikes and freeing local governments from some personnel costs, officials could trim spending without trashing services. In fact, the savings have let governments avoid cuts they otherwise would have had to impose.

The Journal Sentinel analysis explored the impact of Walker-driven changes in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer: The local school district is saving $1 million in pension contributions, health plan adjustments such as increased co-pays, and changes in the workday. "We had many teachers tell us, let's save everybody's job," said Brown Deer Superintendent Deb Kerr. "We didn't cut programs. We didn't raise class sizes. And we maintained our level of staffing."

Those positive effects help explain why Barrett, in his attacks on Walker, doesn't dwell on collective bargaining — the issue that energized those 2011 Capitol protests.

Other impacts of Act 10 undermine not just labor's warning that services would suffer, but also the sheer size of its membership: 
Eliminating automatic collection of union dues exposed the willingness of many workers to quit organized labor. The Wall Street Journal reports that public unions have had stark drops in membership — of more than half for the second-largest, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Membership in the AFSCME council representing state workers has plunged by two-thirds, from 22,300 to 7,100. And the American Federation of Teachers has lost 6,000 of its 17,000 members.

Oh, and that projected $3.6 billion state deficit? Wisconsin now expects a surplus of $150 million at the end of the biennium.

This saga of government savings, uninterrupted services and flagging unions isn't what organizers of Tuesday's recall anticipated. And if they topple Walker, national attention will pivot to Wisconsin's implications for other races, including President Barack Obama's hope for re-election five months from now.

But for those who care as much about government as they do about politics, Tuesday's vote will test whether the public's desire for spending restraints is just talk — or a cry from the heart that officials in other states had better heed.