Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Unity over Division

The defeat of Ohio's anti-union Senate Bill 5 will be hailed by both righties and leftists as a defeat for conservatism. Perhaps due to my skepticism about how authentically conservative that measure actually was (here I might differ a bit with Mytheos Holt), I'm not so sure about that. But it is a defeat for a certain set of political tactics and suggests that a route Republicans recently have surged down may be a bit of a dead end.

John Kasich has no small potential as a governor. However, he has fallen into an unfortunate trap: rather than focusing on selling an economic plan that brings opportunity to all, he instead chose to back a series of reforms that had the appearance of pitting Ohioan against Ohioan. In a way reminiscent of Scott Walker's policies in Wisconsin, Kasich offered a combination of tax cuts and spending cuts and then added a capacious anti-union measure on top of that.

Unlike Walker, Kasich chose not to buy off interest groups by making his anti-collective bargaining apply to all public workers---not just clerks and teachers but also firefighters and police officers (Walker exempted the last two groups). This act of principle only made the issue seem even starker and helped unite a union coalition against this measure. Moreover, certain parts of SB5 reach far beyond cost-saving measures and offer a fundamental restructuring of key parts of Ohio's public service infrastructure. For example, banning tenure for future teachers and tying teacher pay to student performance on standardized exams would have consequences that reach far beyond the government coffers.

Though hating unions has become an increasingly "in" thing for many in the conservative base, many Americans view unions, private and public, as a bulwark of the middle class, which has been subjected to such stinging attacks over the past decade. Economic anxiety about the decline of the middle has, in Ohio and other places, been translated into a defense of unions.

Analysts left and right are speculating about the importance of union spending in tipping the balance, but we should not overestimate the effects of this political spending: a majority seems to have always supported repeal. When Quinnipiac first started polling the repeal of SB5 in May 2011, 54% of respondents backed a repeal. By late October 2011, support for repeal had climbed up to 57%, a definite increase but not a game-changing one. 61% of voters eventually came out in favor of repeal. SB5 was never a popular piece of legislation. Union spending might have increased the margin of victory, but I think Republicans needed more than slick ads if they wanted to win on this issue in Ohio.

The overwhelming victory for Issue 3 (which would ban the enforcement of a federal health-care mandate) shows that conservatives can still get commanding majorities on the question of federal overreach. The defeat of SB5 shows that union-bashing may make for viscerally enjoyable talk-radio, but it may not be the best electoral tactic. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the United States can afford a vigorous public-sector employment field and can even afford public-sector unions. (There is a case to be made against public-sector unions, but fiscal sustainability may not be the strongest grounds for it.) But such expenses can best be afforded under conditions of economic health. Republicans would be far better off working toward an optimistic vision of economic opportunity for all than trying to castigate certain portions of the American public as parasites, vermin, and thugs. Faith in the American people is an ally of small-government thinking. Ronald Reagan understood this alliance and was able to forge an electoral message that combined economic growth with a sense of national fellowship. The defeat of SB5 may yet bring conservatives and Republicans to appreciate the wisdom of this Reaganite principle.

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