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Beware the Union Label

Especially in the public sector.

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By JAY COST
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If Walker can run against this type of narrow interest-group politics and win—in progressive Wisconsin, of all places—then so can Mitt Romney. More than anything else, the Walker victory demonstrates that conservatives can convince the country that unions are not laboring on behalf of “working families.” And if conservatives can do that, they can also persuade voters that environmentalists are interested in something other than “clean air,” and hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton aren’t merely promoting “civil rights.” The old empty communitarian rhetoric can be shown for what it is. 

Of course, there is no real reason for the GOP nominee to make public sector unions a national issue; after all, federal employee unions do not enjoy anywhere near the same rights as their counterparts in the states. But Walker’s victory suggests a line of attack Romney can use against Obama’s major legislative initiatives. 

On the stimulus, under the guise of reviving the economy, the president merely paid off his supporters in the labor unions, the environmental movement, the feminist movement, and the Congressional Black Caucus. The failed solar-panel maker Solyndra, repicient of half a billion dollars in federal loan guarantees, is the most striking illustration of how a Democratic interest won and the public lost. But there is a broader case to be made—that the stimulus failed to jumpstart the economy as the president promised because it was weighed down with patronage. Dollar for dollar, the stimulus was the single largest gift to Democratic interest groups in American history. Romney needs to make that point.

On health care, the story is similar. The president promised to make health insurance more affordable and secure. Indeed, the prime justification for pursuing the legislation so early in his tenure was that affordable health care was an essential ingredient of a sustainable recovery. But Obamacare fails to deliver; it will make insurance more expensive and less secure for millions of Americans. Time and again, the president chose not to follow through on his promises for the sake of a bevy of interest groups—traditional Democratic clients like labor, but also drug companies, hospitals, doctors, and so on. Romney has to convince Americans that, in giving special carve-outs to these well-heeled groups, Obama turned his back on the public good.

As for the financial reform bill, it offers Romney the best opportunity to rebut the president’s charge that the former Massachusetts governor is a “vulture capitalist,” in hock to Wall Street. The president and his allies in Congress promised to clean up the mess left behind by the 2008 implosion of the markets, but their final product actually enshrines the much-despised “too big to fail.” One reason why is that Obama accepted millions from the megabanks during the 2008 campaign, much more than John McCain, and those big financial institutions sent an army of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to make sure any “reform” was amenable to them. It worked for the president’s favored clients, and the public got the short end of the stick.

On all three of these issues, Romney has an opportunity to pin down Obama much as Walker stymied the public sector unions. The Wisconsin unions talked about how they were in it for the public good, but Walker made a compelling case that they were not. Similarly, Romney can point out that, Obama’s communitarian rhetoric notwithstanding, his tenure has been a kind of Tammany-on-the-Potomac; under the Obama machine, it is great to be a client of this patron/president, but terrible for everybody else.

Walker has shown that this kind of argument can win. Romney can follow his lead.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic.

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