The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Rhode Island’s Blue Civil War

Rhode Island’s blue-on-blue showdown is heating up. Famed litigator David Boies is taking a 96 percent pay cut to represent the state against recalcitrant public sector unions. The New York Times reports:

Mr. Boies became involved, he said, because he was convinced that Rhode Island’s pension troubles were just the tip of a $5 trillion iceberg of unsecured retirement promises to the nation’s millions of public workers. “This is something that can cripple state and municipal governments at a time when the federal government is, more and more, cutting back on the services it provides,” he said.

Public unions and their allies maintain that state pensions are owed, intact, to their recipients, and that any tinkering with benefits amounts to theft and criminal breach of contract. Boies and others disagree:

“There’s no contract,” he said. “Even if there was a contract, the state, pursuing the public interest, has the right to modify contracts.”

Cities, states and their lawyers around the country are following the case avidly, said Amy B. Monahan, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who has written extensively on legal aspects of employee benefits. Many are wondering whether their own pension systems are sustainable, she said, and if not, how to make them so.

As the blue social model decays, the coalition that was once united behind it is becoming increasingly splintered and parochial. Boies, known for representing Al Gore, waging antitrust battles against Microsoft, and fighting California’s Proposition 8 in federal court, has impeccable bona fides as a liberal Democrat. But in the face of economic realities, he and other blue liberals are being forced to make fundamental choices about their values and goals.

Boies has opted to defend public services for the young and the needy against the asphyxiating costs of state bureaucracy. But where once he might have been called on to face down opposition to these priorities from the Right, he and other post-blue Democrats like Rahm Emanuel, Andrew Cuomo, and Cory Booker find them on the Left.

There is no denying that the Democrats won impressive victories at the ballot box last month. Nevertheless, the internal contradictions of its governing agenda are already beginning to show.

There is a Blue Civil War coming. It will cut deeply.

Published on December 5, 2012 5:00 pm