Scott Walker’s victory last night was an abnormal situation — only the third recall vote for a governor in a century, and the first in which the incumbent survived. But in the end, it was a reversion to a normal kind of politics. That is, in a center-right country, the conservative candidate had the edge. Not only did the Wisconsin governor win, but he won by a larger margin than he received in his 2010 election victory.
And so the Republican Party is making a “return to normalcy,” to borrow the one phrase that people can remember from Warren G. Harding’s successful 1920 presidential campaign. In that year, Harding championed the feeling that America under President Wilson had wandered too far into a creeping socialist progressivism at home and a vainglorious idealism abroad. The result was a huge victory for the GOP: Harding won more than 60 percent of the national vote, carrying 37 of 48 states, including Wisconsin.
Similarly, America in the 21st century is completing its own return to normalcy, leaving behind exotic foreign wars and excessive spending. Does America need to focus, for a change, on the home front? Of course it does. And should the private sector lead the way, as opposed to the public sector? Absolutely. That’s how the American people see it, and Gallup explains why: a full 40 percent of Americans count themselves as “conservative,” while just 21 percent consider themselves “liberal.” If Republicans are doing their proper job, in terms of seeming plausible as reliable leaders, the nation naturally defaults to the GOP as the sober repository of conservatism.
A key feature of American conservatism is opposing Big Labor. Harding’s running mate in 1920 was Calvin Coolidge, the Massachusetts governor who made a name for himself the year before by breaking the Boston police strike. Indeed, all through the 20th century, Republicans fought unions. Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft is perhaps best remembered today as the co-author of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which crimped union power in the wake of the New Deal. President Truman vetoed it, his veto was overridden, and it’s been on the books ever since. And in 1981, President Ronald Reagan broke a strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Every three decades, it seems, a Republican surges to popularity by clobbering a union.
Now, as if on schedule, comes Walker, the undefeated scourge of public-sector unionism — and, after last night, a new Republican hero. Walker will inevitably be mentioned now as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney, and no matter what happens in this November’s national election — and GOP prospects have improved dramatically in the wake of this victory — the Badger Stater will be rated as a future presidential prospect.
Some observers will seize on Walker’s victory to compose elegies to the union movement. But in fact, an elegy should have been delivered years ago, when private-sector unionism shriveled to less than a tenth of the work force. A strong case can be made, to be sure, that labor must be empowered to provide a check on capital, but it’s hard to find a political party that will make that case; after all, since the time of the North American Free Trade Agreement — pushed to ratification by President Clinton in 1993 — few leading Democrats have felt anything more than pro forma enthusiasm for Volkish horny-handed sons of toil. The new power-broker unions were in the public sector; their members don’t always seem to be toiling, but they are reliable allies to the left in any culture war. These public unions are far more in tune with the sensibilities of Democratic elites than the heirs to George Meany.
The problem, of course, is that public-employee unions have become just another layer of costly government. That is, they can organize themselves so that they have the impenetrable power of civil service, squared. And as a completely predictable result, performance inside the government drops and public exasperation outside the government rises. Remember the General Services Administration scandals? Who doubts for a second that many of the “public servants” featured in those notorious Vegas videos are still on the payroll, still drawing their “step increases”? And before GSA, there were the no-show millionaire city employees of Bell, Calif., New York City’s “rubber room” school teachers, and on and on. Our tax dollars were working — but the people getting paid were not.
So now Walker’s ideas will embolden other leaders, probably in both parties, and spread to other states. And while Walkerism won’t prevail everywhere in the country — each state being its own “laboratory of democracy” — one reality has become clear enough. What political scientist Walter Russell Mead calls “the blue model” of governance is unsustainable. Indeed, according to Chief Executive magazine, the ten states most conducive to pro-business development are led by Republican governors. Wisconsin is not on that top-ten list, but hey, give Walker some time.
Meanwhile, if Romney can focus on the core Main Street issues of taxing and spending — and not get diverted into domestic or foreign quagmires — he will win this November.
James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor.