The Agenda

First Schwarzenegger, Now Walker

After Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recall victory, there was a brief window when it seemed as though a center-right coalition could curb the power and influence of public sector workers. But Schwarzenegger’s efforts were beaten back by a well-funded and extremely effective campaign. The rest of Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial tenure was spent in a mad scramble to “the center,” and California’s public sector headed into the buzz-saw of the financial crisis in parlous shape. I saw Schwarzenegger’s 2005 defeat as a last stand. Very few politicians could match Schwarzenegger’s charisma and deep pockets. The successes we’ve seen in curbing the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers have been limited in the years since. Indiana, for example, is an unconventional state, in which it only took an executive order to give public sector managers the flexibility they need to reform rigid work rules and compensation schemes.

Wisconsin has been a test case for what a less-than-charismatic, less-than-inspiring conservative governor can accomplish in a state where the power of public sector workers is firmly entrenched, and the results haven’t been pretty. While I firmly believe that Gov. Walker deserves the support of taxpayers, there’s no question that he wasn’t prepared for this fight. Public employee unions, Organizing for America, MoveOn, and a variety of other organizations have focused considerable attention on the state, sympathetic media outlets and reporters have offered a selective portrait of the underlying compensation problem that has been amplified by the blogosphere (watch how the term “grossly overpaid” has spread), and, most importantly, Governor Scott Walker has played a weak hand rather badly. Dave Weigel explains how Walker has found himself in this position, and I haven’t seen any roadmap as to how he might get out of it. At this point, I wouldn’t be shocked if Walker were turfed in a recall election, thus bringing us full circle.

There is, as Rick Hess suggests, a very small upside in this scenario. The Walker bogeyman has given pro-union Democratic governors more leverage to win concessions from public sector workers:

The new, combative conservatism is bemoaned as mean-spirited by pundits and CNN anchors who wonder why everyone can’t just sit down and hug it out. Meanwhile, it’s proving a late Christmas gift for Democratic leaders who suddenly enjoy more compliant unions without having had to play the heavy. The result: Democratic governors like Martin O’Malley in Maryland and John Hickenlooper in Colorado are happy, at least for the moment, because Republican efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana make their proposed cuts a whole lot more attractive. And California Governor Jerry Brown is downright gleeful, as he’s now been able to pin on the public employee unions the job of getting voters to approve a referendum that’ll generate another $12.5 billion in taxes to help forestall unpleasant cuts.

As Rick makes clear, there is something more than a little opportunistic about all of this, but it is what it is. 

Brilliantly, organized labor and its allies, including the White House, have managed to portray efforts to make the public sector more efficient and responsive as a conspiracy cooked up by billionaires. And I’m sorry to say that it is conservatives who deserve much of the blame.

(1) This year’s budget shortfall is a problem. But it is symptomatic of a deeper problem, namely that the growth of state spending has been out of step with the growth of the overall economy and thus the tax base. 

(2) In Indiana, the most effective employees have seen significant pay increases while the weakest performers have been let go. Curbing CBR isn’t just about cutting compensation costs. It is about deploying the compensation bill to deliver the best results for the people who depend on public services the most. 

(3) That is the message I’d want to emphasize: we want to be sure that every dollar we spend on public services is really reaching and helping welfare recipients who are trying to gain a foothold in the job market, K-12 students and students at public colleges and universities, people who rely on the state Medicaid system, and countless others. When political impediments make it next to impossible to fire public workers who aren’t doing their jobs, money that could be devoted to giving people in tough spots a leg up is wasted. The vast majority of public employees are doing their jobs as well as they can given the decidedly mixed quality of management. They’re the workers that reform will empower to do their jobs better, and to have access to the metrics and training that will help.

(4) And that is why Walker and other Republican governors need to give a broader public sector reform effort more thought. Where they’re right is in trying to give local governments more flexibility. (Josh Barro offers a guide to the tools state and local officials might use.) That’s only a starting point, however. 

The whole brouhaha is a reminder of the need for the right to think long-term. The health reform debate played out as it did because social policy scholars like Jacob Hacker thought deeply about the defeat of Clinton’s Health Security proposal and they designed a new approach designed to survive the rough-and-tumble of the political process. To win these fights, policymakers need a half-a-loaf strategy, i.e., fallback options for when they run into resistance. The defeat of the public option was, for health policy advocates on the left, a relatively minor loss, as the likely trajectory of health costs in a tightly centralized system built around subsidizing coverage with a high actuarial value all but guarantees the need for aggressive cost containment measures in the future. Win now, or win later. Having taken on public sector unions without mobilizing an effective coalition of taxpayers and beneficiaries of public services, Gov. Walker and his allies risk losing in bruising, lasting way. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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