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Britain And Wisconsin

The Battle of Madison may be over, but its ripple effects are still being felt across the country in states like Ohio and Maine. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was able to get his bills through the State House despite the spectacle of Democratic senators hiding in a pub across state lines, but in the process he has unleashed a powerful opposition that threatens to reopen the battle with a recall election next year. In Ohio, unions led a referendum that overturned anti-union laws passed by what is now a very unpopular GOP governor and legislature.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Blue state politicians have clipped union wings through negotiated changes in compensation that nudge the system towards something more sustainable.  One key seems to be that the politics can’t get too far in front of the arithmetic; voters are more interested in solutions to practical problems than in sweeping changes involving collective bargaining rights.  Politicians like New Jersey’s Governor Christie who are seen to be doing what the facts require will do better than those who seem to think that “a crisis is too good to waste,” and use a crisis to push through deeper changes than voters are willing to accept.

Mayors and governors looking to tackle unsustainable pensions and benefits for public-sector workers can also look across the Atlantic, where the Cameron government has made some impressive strides in dealing with a truculent opposition. From the Financial Times:

A serious breakthrough in the dispute involving millions of public sector workers was achieved on Monday night after a majority of unions agreed to consider formal offers from the government. […]

Last-minute meetings were held in several of the schemes to hit a deadline set by the government before Danny Alexander, Treasury chief secretary, makes a statement to the Commons on Tuesday as MPs leave for Christmas.

Ministers stuck to their main proposals for higher contributions, later retirement and a switch from final-salary to career-average schemes – and offered no new money – but they made concessions on issues such as the rate at which pension benefits are accrued.

This is encouraging news. The UK’s problem with exploding costs for public sector workers runs even deeper than America’s, and the British are facing changes that will be much more radical and disruptive than anything contemplated stateside. Yet the Cameron government has so far managed to negotiate with unions without the acrimony that has characterized similar proposals in America. More than that, he remains popular for doing so — the government is well ahead of the opposition in the polls.

Compromise and flexibility are important, especially when making changes that will be difficult and disruptive for many. Scott Walker’s inflexibility may have gotten his bills through the legislature, and the GOP kept its control of the state senate through the recall, but the fight polarized the state and mobilized a monolithic resistance movement that will make it harder to pass similar measures elsewhere. There are times in politics when you have to stake everything on an all or nothing position, but they are surprisingly rare.  Effective leaders look beyond all or nothing fights; moving the ball down the field is important, and in American football and rugby both you don’t have to score on every play to win the game.

David Cameron failed to get a majority and had to build a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  By sticking to the facts and showing flexibility in the pursuit of his goals and by building coalitions behind specific ideas, he has gotten more done already than most British prime ministers manage in a full term.  He has certainly accomplished more in the way of domestic reform than George W. Bush.  Neither the left nor the right in the United States seems to be very good at ‘strategery’ and arguably our politics are deadlocked less because the competing ideologies are rigid than because our politicians are not very good at leadership.  They don’t know how to craft and sell the kind of compromise that moves the ball down the field; they just throw one Hail Mary after another at the goalposts.  The ball is always in the air and there is plenty of action on the field — but neither side is scoring many points.

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  • Luke Lea

    Good post.

  • J R Yankovic

    “Blue state politicians have clipped union wings through negotiated changes in compensation that nudge the system towards something more sustainable. One key seems to be that the politics can’t get too far in front of the arithmetic; voters are more interested in solutions to practical problems than in sweeping changes involving collective bargaining rights. Politicians like New Jersey’s Governor Christie who are seen to be doing what the facts require will do better than those who seem to think that ‘a crisis is too good to waste,’ and use a crisis to push through deeper changes than voters are willing to accept.”

    I suspect you’ll find lots of clear-thinking, level-headed writers who’ll back you up on that one. Peter Lawler of “First Things,” for one, has been arguing for some time that one thing that quickly disenchants the mass of voters from more doctrinaire “conservative” Republican candidates is their all-or-nothing attitude. Of course most prospective Republican voters don’t want middleclass entitlements to bankrupt the system. But if there’s a chance of making them more sustainable – as opposed to dispensing with them altogether – they’ll always take it.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I think of myself as a recovering liberal and I notice when republicans get too doctrinaire I back off. I always think with satisfaction of Bob Barr’s frustration when the Senate served him up an Arkansas sized helping of Jury Nullification. I react in similar fashion when lefties get too ideological! Makes me wonder what’s the difference between ‘doctrinaire’ and ‘ideological’? 😉

  • Tom Gates

    I think your analysis is too simplistic. Each state and big city has different political and economic dynamics which drive political strategy. These situations in Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey and the UK are totally different. Particularly when union funding of the Democratic party is critical to its survival. In Wisconsin, the reason for the strident back lash by the unions is the recent success by the Governor in controlling costs by reducing the monopoly healthcare programs run by the unions that contained inflated costs. This was a tangible result. More importantly, the recent trend by certain teachers to leave the union and saving $50 a month because they do not see value in union representation. That is the most dangerous trend to unions and must be stopped at all costs. The Union strategy is to give a little bit now, and when the economy magically turns around, then they will get their payback. This boom bust way of thinking are gradually making these blue states unsustainable in a global economy.

  • Ann

    We are so past the point where conventional half measures will even kick the can down the road for a few more years. There is pain and there is PAIN, and unless people realize that dithering around the edges and patching with duct tape is going to get us back on track then we will experience PAIN.

    If you counted inflation the way it used to be counted before the fiat money crowd got control, you would see that adjusted for inflation, the stock market isn’t rising, and we have negative GDP. If everyone who was looking for a job in 2009 were still being counted as unemployed, unemployment would be 11% and if it were accurately counted, it would be much higher.

    Unfortunately the blue model is going to have to play out to its most painful conclusion because no politician has the courage to tell the truth, and the few that do end up getting pilloried by the “have their cake and eat it too” crowd. The compromise between the full statists and the half statists has gotten us here.

  • WigWag

    Professor Mead’s suggestion that “the Government is well ahead of the opposition in the polls” is misleading. Virtually every poll taken in the past three months shows the Conservative Party behind the Labour Party by between three and six percentage points. In one poll released yesterday it was Conservatives 38 percent, Labour 42 percent and Liberal Democrats 9 percent. This poll is consistent with most other recent polls.

    It is a mistake to assume that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is a permanent phenomenon. The coalition is already fraying over differences over Europe and the most logical assumption is that over time, coalition politics will become more problematic making a break up of the Government increasingly likely.

    As for David Cameron himself, his approval ratings linger between 43-48 percent placing him squarely in Obama territory. What makes Cameron’s difficulties even more acute than Obama’s is that in the United States slowly but surely the economy has begun to turn while in Great Britain it is still flatlining. Britain is experiencing little or no economic growth, unemployment shows no signs of abating and inflation (or is it stagflation) is rearing it’s ugly head.

    Prime Minister Cameron’s policies which focus on austerity are making the British economy worse not better. He’s not leading Great Britain to a healthier, more prosperous and sustainable future, he’s leading Britain to a more destitute, angry and irrelevant future. The riots of last August may be just a small and unfortunate taste of what our mother country is in for unless Cameron’s policies are reversed.

    Not only are the Prime Minister’s policies counterproductive, in time they are almost sure to lead to his political demise.

    Professor Mead gets it wrong. Cameron isn’t putting the “Great” back in Great Britain, he’s substituting the word “Great” for the word “Pathetic.”

  • Charles R. Williams

    What distinguishes Wisconsin and Ohio is the political skill of their respective governors, Walker and Kasich. I think this is your point.

    Kasich may turn Ohio around but I doubt he will get re-elected. It is not enough to do the right things. They have to be done the right way.

  • Jim.

    The fundamental problem is not an unwillingness to compromise, it is the fact that any “compromise” is unlikely to get the ball all the way to the goal: A solvent state.

    To raise taxes as far as we would need, to “meet halfway” (or even a quarter or an eighth of the way) on a tax more / spend less compromise would critically damage our economic vitality.

    Government makes too many promises. That’s the root of the matter. That’s why we spend too much, and that’s why we’re in debt up to our eyeballs and beyond.

    We need to admit that we have made promises we can’t cover, cut back to what we can cover, and move on from there.

  • Anthony

    WRM, timely advise for both U.S. Senate and House (inclusive of executive office): “politics can’t get too far in front of the arithmetic” as well as compromise and flexibility are important to functioning democracy.

  • Yahzooman

    No, we wouldn’t want to offend anyone. We wouldn’t want to actually do what we say we’re going to do during the election.

    I admire both Kasich and Walker. They saw the opportunity and marched forward. Government bond ratings are being downgraded; debt is up and deficits are the norm. It’s time for drastic action. We’ve had bold BLUE state action for years resulting in this mess. We need a parallel RED state correction in order to return to normalcy.

  • elisa

    Just want to point out that there is a great deal of betrayal in American politics, where one side holds out the notion of a coalition and then betrays those fool enough to assume good faith on the part of the offerors.

    I think that bad faith is responsible for more dysfunction than ideological rigidity. Our political class are purists only in the sense of pure self-interest. They hold out on terms only in order to preen themselves and trash the opposition.

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