Though it hasn’t been celebrated as such, Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin represents the full flowering of the tea-party movement. It is also a sign — among others — that the Republican party has recaptured its ideological core.
Tea partiers are often mischaracterized as extreme right-wingers. Thus, proponents of same-sex marriage or unrestricted abortion will invoke “Tea Party” elements as those most opposed to their efforts. That’s off target. Though many in the movement may have conservative social views, those weren’t the issues that spurred them to organize, demonstrate, and vote.
No, the tea partiers — judging by their signs, speeches, and writings — were alarmed about irresponsible government spending, bailouts of the undeserving, and spiraling debt. The tea partiers are actually the 21st-century “goo-goos” — good-government types — the label that was attached to progressives in the early 20th century. They aren’t anarchists, racists (as in the more febrile accusations of their opponents), or culture warriors. They simply want to see government scale back and perform its essential functions fairly, efficiently, and honestly.
For some time, Republican officeholders were little better than Democrats when it came to spending, accountability, and reform. The size of government seemed to grow inexorably under both parties. Some Republicans earned and deserved tea-party disdain.
But we are now in an era of true Republican reform. The reformers are Republican governors who, like Scott Walker, have chosen to tackle the bloated budgets and corrupt bargains of state governments. At least a half dozen Republican governors — Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Chris Christie in New Jersey, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Bob McDonnell in Virginia, and Walker himself — have taken on the public-sector unions frontally.
The word “corrupt” is not too strong for a system that functioned like this: Unions worked to elect Democrats. Once elected, Democrats passed laws that permitted states to withhold union dues from state-employee paychecks, further enriching and entrenching public-sector unions. State governments then signed contracts with the unions, giving far more generous pay, work rules (like teacher tenure), and benefits than the average taxpayer receives. Unions thus elected the people who sat across the table from them in contract negotiations. As Victor Gotbaum, a New York City union leader, boasted, “We have the ability . . . to elect our own boss.” That mutual back-scratching has burdened taxpayers with pension and other liabilities mounting into the trillions.
On his first day in office, Chris Christie signed an executive order forbidding public-sector unions from making political contributions (corporations were already barred). He then embarked on the grueling, but necessary, battle to require unionized teachers to accept slightly less generous pensions, and to make tiny contributions to their own health insurance.
In New Mexico, Susana Martinez has cut spending by $150 million without raising taxes, reduced the state workforce by 5 percent, eliminated duplicative taxes on small businesses, and increased local control of schools by opting out of No Child Left Behind.
Indiana’s Mitch Daniels ended collective bargaining for public-sector unions early in his tenure. He balanced budgets without raising taxes, earned the state an AAA bond rating for the first time, reduced the number of state workers to the lowest in the nation, improved the business climate, transformed a $700 million deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus, and earned Indiana the Tax Foundation’s “First in the Midwest” award for business climate. Indiana’s government is also more efficient: Child-support collections are up, wait times for child services have been halved, 150 state troopers have been added, and the Healthy Indiana Plan provides health insurance to 50,000 low-income Hoosiers. Among participants, emergency-room use has declined. Perhaps the most emblematic of all Indiana’s accomplishments is that wait times at the Department of Motor Vehicles have been reduced to less than eight minutes.
Both Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Bob McDonnell in Virginia have pushed for reform of teacher tenure. McDonnell, like the other Republican reform governors, has reduced state spending. Jindal has also passed a balanced budget, ethics reform, tax cuts, and one of the most sweeping school-voucher laws in the nation.
Scott Walker is in good company. He and his fellow reform Republicans are the vanguard of a refreshed and confident Republican party. It’s a party that, unlike the Democrats, is confronting the looming threat of government debt. That is what the Tea Parties have been demanding. All of the Republican reformers are popular. Who knows — if this continues, we may even escape bankruptcy.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2012 Creators Syndicate, Inc.