- BEST OF THE WEB TODAY
- Updated May 31, 2012, 4:23 p.m. ET
What’s at Stake in Wisconsin
If the polls are correct, next Tuesday Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker will be–hmm, what’s the opposite of “recalled”? In other contexts it would be “forgotten,” but that obviously doesn’t fit here. “Re-elected” isn’t right; that won’t happen before 2014. Our inability to think of a suitable verb shows how unusual this situation is. Here’s another indication: Wikipedia lists only 16 unsuccessful recall elections, both state and local, in U.S. history. Seven of them took place last year and targeted Wisconsin state senators.
Although last year’s recall elections targeted senators from both parties (two Republicans and no Democrats actually did go down to defeat), it was the Democrats who initiated the current recall mania, and their main target was always the governor. The recalls are the latest in a series of extreme measures aimed at first preventing and then retaliating for Walker’s budget reforms, which curtail the power of government employee unions. Last year Democratic senators fled the state in an effort to deny a legislative quorum. Unionists held massive demonstrations, replete with violent rhetoric, both outside and inside the Capitol. Supporters of the governor received death threats.
Walker and his fellow Republicans stood firm and enacted the reform law. To judge by a news report in The Wall Street Journal, it has been a remarkable success. “Public-employee unions in Wisconsin have experienced a dramatic drop in membership–by more than half for the second-biggest union,” the Journal reports:
Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees–the state’s second-largest public-sector union after the National Education Association, which represents teachers–fell to 28,745 in February from 62,818 in March 2011, according to a person who has viewed Afscme’s figures. A spokesman for Afscme declined to comment.
Much of that decline came from Afscme Council 24, which represents Wisconsin state workers, whose membership plunged by two-thirds to 7,100 from 22,300 last year.
The American Federation of Teachers reports it has lost 6,000 of 17,000 members. These losses can be expected to mount as existing contracts expire. Once that happens, as the Journal explains, under the Walker reforms the state stops withholding union dues from the employees paychecks unless the employee asks to pay them.
Few are likely to do so, because, as former union member Tina Pocernich tells the Journal, “there’s nothing the union can do anymore.” That’s because the Walker reforms also did away with “collective bargaining,” a process in which unions negotiated generous pay and benefits for its members.
Public-sector collective bargaining is an inherently corrupt process. Unions spend their members’ dues to help elect the politicians who sit on the other side of the bargaining table. Thus, the very officeholders who are supposed to be representing the interests of the taxpayer are often beholden to their putative adversaries, whom they assist in looting the public treasury.
As liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne acknowledges, this is “one of the Democratic Party’s main sources of organization.” Dionne argues that although a recall election is “a remedy of last resort,” it is justified in this case because Walker and his fellow Republicans have engaged in “a new and genuinely alarming approach to politics on the right.” In addition to targeting the unions, they have enacted legislation making voter fraud more difficult.
As Dionne puts it, Walker and his party have sought “to use incumbency to alter the rules and tilt the legal and electoral playing field decisively toward the interests of those in power.” But if Dionne is right that the Walker voting and budget reforms will benefit Republicans politically, that shows that the Democrats had tilted the playing field. If Dionne’s partisan sense of alarm proves justified, it will mean that in a state like Wisconsin, the Democrats cannot win without corrupt means.
That was not always the case. There were no public-sector unions when Democrats won five consecutive presidential elections between 1932 and 1948. Franklin D. Roosevelt, victor in the first four of them, said in 1937: “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted in the public service.” But in 1959, under a Democratic governor, Wisconsin became the first state with unionized employees, and in 1962, President Kennedy signed an executive order permitting most federal employees to unionize.
In the ensuing half-century, the Democratic Party’s fortunes have declined nationwide, although they have improved in some places as the country has become more polarized. In a fascinating essay for The American Spectator’s website, Jeffrey Lord attributes the Democrats’ problems (or “The Death of Liberalism,” the title of Spectator editor Bob Tyrrell’s new book) to a cultural shift that took place after JFK’s assassination.
Lord quotes Robert Caro, biographer of Kennedy’s successor: “The New Frontiersmen–casual, elegant, understated, in love with their own sophistication . . .–were a witty bunch, and wit does better when it has a target to aim at, and the huge, lumbering figure of Lyndon Johnson, with his carefully buttoned-up suits and slicked-down hair, his bellowing speeches and extravagant, awkward gestures, made an inevitable target. . . . When he mispronounced ‘hors d’oeuvres’ as ‘whore doves,’ the mistake was all over Georgetown in what seemed an instant.”
Kennedy himself, Lord writes, had a healthy respect for the American people and for his vice president. But after his assassination, “the attitude toward Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson that was evidenced by Kennedy’s liberal leaning staff, by the Washington Georgetown set, by Washington journalists–slowly seeped into the sinews of liberalism itself”:
Slowly this contempt for the American people spread to institutions that were not government, manifesting itself in a thousand different ways. It infected the media, academe and Hollywood, where stars identified with middle-America like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball were eclipsed in the spotlight by leftists like Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda.
This is the attitude Roger Scruton has termed oikophobia.
Obviously a political party cannot win elections, outside of certain rarefied locales, on snob appeal alone. To have a chance at a majority, then, Democratic politicians need to give substantial numbers of ordinary people a reason to vote for them. Public-sector unions accomplish this, at the cost of making government inefficient and eventually insolvent.
Gov. Walker’s reforms ought to appeal to big-government liberals as much as they do to small-government conservatives. After all, a muscular government is a lean government. In the long run, the Democratic Party could survive and even thrive without the help of government unions, as it did in the second third of the 20th century. All it would need is a serious attitude adjustment.
What’s the Matter With the Obama Campaign?
Politico reports that “the president’s enemies, and a few of his friends, think his in-your-face negativity . . . have [sic] produced a backlash”:
“There is some validity to the point that we lose something” by attacking Romney, said one senior Democratic strategist active in the campaign.
Republicans, and a few Democrats, see an ominous downward trend for Obama and say his direct attacks on Romney are eroding a robust personal popularity rating north of 50 percent, his top electoral asset.
“Obama’s got this Reagan thing going, the 1983, 1984 dynamic–he’s personally popular even though people aren’t personally enthralled with his policies or performance,” said Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican pollster who thinks Romney’s lack of personal appeal guarantees a deadlocked race until the end. “But his campaign has gone very negative, and at some point, people are going to stop giving him the benefit of the doubt.”
No doubt the tone of the Obama attacks is irritating, but what about the substance? Another Politico report notes that a top Obama surrogate, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, couldn’t bring himself to echo the attacks on Bain Capital:
Appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday, Patrick called Bain “a perfectly fine company.”
“They have a role in the private economy, and I’ve got a lot of friends there . . . on both sides of the aisle,” Patrick added. “I think the Bain strategy has been distorted in some of the public discussions.”
“I think the issue isn’t about Bain. I think it’s about whether he’s accomplished in either his public or private life the kinds of things he wants to accomplish for the United States,” the Massachusetts governor said.
Maybe the central problem with the Obama attacks isn’t that they’re negative but that they’re absurd lies. Consider this passage from John Heilemann‘s enormous New York magazine piece on the campaign:
Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago–running more negative ads than any campaign in history–what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’ ” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”
The New York Times’s Ross Douthat notes that “the danger of the social issues strategy . . . is that it sends the following message. Unemployment is high. The deficit is even higher. But we think the most important subject on your mind should be what isn’t being covered by your local Catholic hospital’s health insurance plan.”
And the plan to depict Romney as “a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio and John Galt” draws this quip from reader Jeryl Bier: “This sounds like it would be about as successful as Republicans painting Obama as a combination of Evo Morales, Saul Alinksy, and Snowball.”