Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Playing for Reagan Democrats

Looking at the Democrats' decision to hold the 2012 party convention in Charleston, NC, William Galston frets that Team Obama may be focusing on the arugula vote at the expense of Reagan Democrats:

Taken together, these clues [the convention decision and Axelrod remarks holding up Colorado as a bellwether] suggest that the Obama’s 2012 campaign will focus more on the Democratic periphery—territory newly won in 2008—than on the heartland, where elections have been won and lost for the past half-century. This could turn out to be a mistake of epic proportions. Why? Because the United States looks a lot more like Ohio than like Colorado.

That is, less educated, more dependent on manufacturing, more culturally conservative than voters in Colorado.

Made to order, then, the labor crisis ginned up by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who seeks to strip those Wisconsin public sector unions that didn't support him of their collective bargaining rights? Some think so:
On ABC’s “Top Line” today, former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, told us that the battles in states including Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa could wind up benefiting President Obama politically, particularly since the battles are being waged in critical presidential battleground states.

“He's somehow got to show that he's with the workers, that he's with people who are concerned about their jobs,” Frost told us. “And what Republicans have done is give him a golden opportunity to show them that he is on the side of the working men and women. The labor movement had been kind of on the sidelines until recently. Now he may be able to motivate his base. This may actually long-term help him in the election” in 2012.
Of course, public sector union employees, who have maintained their benefits quite well before the latest multi-state assault by mostly Republican governors, are a a different demographic from private sector union members, who have lost so much over the course of three decades. The New York Times reports on blue collar ambivalence in Wisconsin:
Among the top five employers here [in Janesville, Wisconsin] are the county, the schools and the city. And that was enough to make Mr. Hahan, a union man from a union town, a supporter of Gov. Scott Walker’s sweeping proposal to cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin, a plan that has set off a firestorm of debate and protests at the state Capitol. He says he still believes in unions, but thinks those in the public sector lead to wasteful spending because of what he sees as lavish benefits and endless negotiations...

There are deeply divided opinions and shifting allegiances over whether unions are helping or hurting people who have been caught in the recent economic squeeze. And workers themselves, being pitted against one another, are finding it hard to feel sympathy or offer solidarity, with their own jobs lost and their benefits and pensions cut back or cut off. 
The comments in the story reflecting that lack of sympathy, however, seem focused more on the benefit cuts demanded by the governor, which the unions have already  conceded, than on Walker's assault on collective bargaining rights. And perhaps that's where public opinion will settle -- acknowledging that public employees' benefits and work rules will have to look more like those of the private sector, but acknowledging too that they have the right to bargain over more than wages, and that under the narrowest of constraints. Since Walker campaigned on the cuts but not on the work rule changes, notwithstanding his recent claims, it would seem that Democrats can draw a clear line: public unions must make some benefit concessions in their bargaining, but should not lose their right to bargain over benefits. That's a position with public support: a Gallup/USA Today poll finds that 60% of Americans are against ending collective bargaining.

The narrow defense may be relatively easy.  But what about that broader split in sympathies tracked by the Times -- the large mass of un-unionized workers and unemployed who see public employees as a privileged group?  Can Democrats muster a broad argument about power such as this articulated by Ezra Klein?
For all their faults, unions tend to see their constituents as not just their own members, but the "working class," broadly defined. That's why you'll find labor's fingerprints on everything from the two-day weekend to Medicare to the Civil Rights Act of 1965 - none of which require you to flash a union card before you can benefit from them. They act -- quite self-consciously -- as a counterbalance to corporate power. There's no reason, after all, that unions should be leading the fight to see the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire. That's political capital they could be spending on reform of the nation's labor laws. And yet they are.

To get a sense of what a world without unions would look like - a world where power is distributed radically differently - you need look no further than Walker's own proposals. In his State of the State speech, he said, "The decisions we face are not easy and the solutions we must approve will require true sacrifice." He's already called for plenty of it from not only state employees, but also the low-income residents who rely on Wisconsin's BadgerCare program.

But some won't have to sacrifice nearly so much. Walker's campaign platform called for sharp cuts in corporate taxes, including "eliminating corporate taxes for the first two years of operation." His budget repair bill proposes to allow the state to sell energy plants "with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state," and goes on to say that "any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest."
The Republican assault on public unions could help the Democrats by softening the unions up. That is, Democrats can play good cop to the Republicans' bad cop -- demanding concessions, a la Cuomo or Obama's Education Department -- while negotiating with public unions in good faith.

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