It is hard for me to stay neutral in the battle between Republican governors and public sector unions. This may be the boldest task that Republicans have shouldered in decades, and I can only hope they’re willing to see it through. At issue here are not only the financial crises of states that are running in the red. It also remains to be seen whether we can avoid the fate of European countries, in which those living off taxes constitute more than fifty percent of the population. In Austria, most voters who show up for elections are public employees and retirees (dependent on payments from the state), and they are delighted to raise taxes for their own benefit. In France the attempt to cut the benefits of public employees recently resulted in strikes that crippled the country; and elsewhere in Europe misnamed public servants have rioted as well as engaged in strikes.
There is also an ideological factor that concerns me here. Public employees, including school teachers, hardly represent a cross-section of the country on social and cultural issues. They are well to the left of most of the population—and not only on economic policy. Groups like the National Educational Association take very definite stands on family issues, and one has to be naïve to think that union-faithful teachers favor educating the young in some value-free manner. They advocate social engineering in the classroom as well as preserving a tax monopoly on American education. Teachers’ unions are jerking around the public when they pretend that by yielding to their demands, we somehow raise the level of education. We do no such thing, as standardized test scores and what I’ve seen at the college level would suggest.
There are, however, two factors that may work against continued efforts by Republicans to deal with the public sector and its demands. First, the public is hardly united behind those governors who have taken a stand here. In Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has taken collective bargaining power away from the public sector (except for firefighters and police) is facing unfavorable poll numbers. A greater percentage of Wisconsin residents oppose rather than support what he and his Republican-dominated legislature have proposed. This is the case despite the riotous demonstrations and inflammatory slogans of those who have been protesting inside and outside the statehouse in Madison. New York Times polls suggest that at the national level about 10% more American voters oppose the stand taken by Republican governors against public sector unions than endorse this relatively hard line.
One governor in particular, Chris Christie, has been able to turn around unfavorable numbers by being confrontational and then becoming a national celebrity. But not every Republican governor standing up to the public sector may have the personality to achieve this. Let’s not forget the unions have vast financial resources and an army in the tens of millions to make their case. A large part of the national media support them, and presumably a unionized teaching force, which has given up even the appearance of being above politics, are advocating for public sector unions.
Second, the election of a Republican president in 2012 may actually work against Republican governors battling public sector unions. If such a president resembles Bush II or McCain, what we are likely to get is a neoconservative in international relations leaning toward the center domestically. This hypothetical executive may put all his eggs into a liberal international basket and start “engaging” countries he (or she) considers hostile to the US ideologically. A “third war in a Muslim country” that George Will prudently asks his fellow-Republicans to avoid, may turn into a fifth or sixth, together with a decision to confront Russia or China, in order to promote “democratic values.”
Listening to the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates and reading Republican columnists addressing the “weaknesses” of the Obama administration, it seems that ideologically driven belligerence may be the main feature of a Republican presidency. Taking on union power would not be particularly high among Republican priorities. Instead the Republican National Committee and the Republican media would be revving up support for new foreign crusades. This would be different, if the holdovers from the Bush-McCain era would disappear. But since the Republican national media are mostly in neoconservative hands, it may be hard to change the way the party would lead from the Oval Office.
This scenario is avoidable if a governor now embroiled with the public sector became the presidential candidate– campaigning specifically as someone who would fight big, costly government and its unionized interests. The dynamics would change if that became the wedge issue in 2012. The Republican warriors fighting in state capitals and the Tea Party Representatives in Congress would then take the party over at the top. But first they need a credible candidate to carry their flag.