Obama’s “Us vs. Them” Strategy Failed in Wisconsin

Obama’s “Us vs. Them” Strategy Failed in Wisconsin

Reuters/Joshua Roberts

President Obama is convinced that he will be reelected by dividing the country and cherry picking the discontented. He sets poor against rich, women against Republicans, Catholics against Planned Parenthood, lenders against borrowers, environmentalists against oil drillers – every issue becomes a conflict. It is a cynical strategy, and one which voters should reject. Democrats tried to divide Wisconsin into people who were for or against public unions. At the end, the strategy crumbled, because voters saw only one state, one budget, one common good.

The stock market surged on Wednesday, the best run-up in months. Analysts credited prospective stimulus efforts around the globe for the big jump. Maybe, but there’s another plausible explanation. The most positive financial development of the day – by far -- came from Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker rebuffed a recall attempt engineered by public employee unions.

The vote in Wisconsin was a tonic, proving that voters get it, that progress is possible and   that the nation wants leadership. Wall Street shouted out its relief, and gave us a taste of what a Romney victory in November could mean for financial markets. Voters: pay attention!

Consider: the economic news has gotten worse and worse, with both developed and emerging countries reporting withering growth and escalating debts.  Hopelessness prevails; interest groups from Greece to Paris to San Diego – pensioners, public employees, students – dig in to protect their state-supplied mother’s milk. The French protest if they have to retire at 62 instead of 60. The Greeks riot if they have to pay taxes. Our labor unions aim to toss a duly elected official who curbs their power.

In the face of the downward spiral, just when it seemed like there was no solving our   fiscal fiascos, voters in labor-friendly Wisconsin – voters who had been regaled for months on how the bully in the governor’s mansion was stealing God-given rights from our selfless public employees – stepped up and did the sensible thing. Even union members voted against recalling Walker. Some 38 percent of Walker’s support came from union households.

The New York Times and other liberal outfits will lay the blame for this unthinkable turn of events – Wisconsin went for Obama by 14 points – by noting that Walker outspent his rival many times over. There is no question that heavy advertising by Walker’s supporters helped his cause. But only because his message made sense. In cities and states across our country, citizens are losing their libraries, their parks and their pre-school programs because benefits for public union employees have crowded out everything else.  Money for education is being sucked into a dark pool of protected tenure and guaranteed investment returns on pension assets. Money for public safety is going to rigged retirement pay and disproportionate disability awards. These distortions cannot continue.

Democrats and Republicans alike have pressed for concessions from unions. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo has matched efforts by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to rein in out-of-control union benefits. Some have gone further – like Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor used his Republican majority in both houses of the state legislature to ram through changes in the bargaining rights of many public employees and to eliminate the requirement that municipal and state workers belong to unions. This last measure is an existential threat to organized labor. Without forced membership, many workers opt out.

Since Walker changed the rules, according to the Wall Street Journal, Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (Afscme) has plummeted 45 percent. In the past year, membership nationwide in Afscme slipped 4 percent, even as the number of state and local workers dropped by under 1 percent. That is an ominous trend for an organization whose clout relies on dues revenues to buy favors from politicians. 

States and cities across the country are grappling with these issues. Walker’s victory was not the only one this week for those trying to right the balance between public interest and public unions. In San Diego and San Jose, voters approved measures that demanded union workers pay more towards their health care and pensions. In California, closures of some of the states’ prized beaches and cutbacks to its excellent universities – not to mention cuts to Medicaid and welfare programs -- have been stark wake-up calls to residents. They get it.

The importance of these developments cannot be overstated. Our country faces a severe test. The recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) starkly lays out the consequences of our fiscal profligacy, raising concerns about “the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis….” We are spending too much, and before long the damage will be irreversible. The report says that federal debt will soar to more than 90 percent of GDP by 2022 as things stand, and to an incomprehensible 200 percent by 2037.  We need to make difficult choices, especially about reining in our entitlements programs – choices that President Obama will not even discuss. This, despite having convened the Simpson-Bowles Commission to do just that.

Mr. Obama has completely whiffed on the biggest issue of our day – an issue that fired up the Tea Party, unimaginably lost Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to Scott Brown and that drove voters to elect a Republican House in 2008.  An issue that every poll of every interest group rates as a top concern. At what point, one wonders, will the White House get the message?