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.