The Calculus of Consent–The Sequel

In my post a week ago on “the calculus of consent,” I made the argument that in our unique political system and culture, unlike explicit party-government parliamentary forms, really big social policy changes require some level of consent from the minority party if they are to prove durable. Hence Obamacare, passed on a party-line basis, is politically unsustainable.
A Power Line reader sends along a thoughtful challenge suggesting conservatives, and especially Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, may be making the same mistake. I excerpt the letter in part here:

I agree 100% regarding the unwise politics on how Health Care Reform was pushed through Congress in the teeth of solid minority party opposition along with polls that under the best of how the questions were posed gave barely 50 percent majority support if indeed that much.
Would you perhaps agree with me that the Scott Walker public employee reforms in Wisconsin are politically on soft ground for the same reason? However necessary the Walker reforms are on account of the impending train wreck of public spending, and I should point out that the Left has also been committed to the idea that Health Care Reform is necessary on account of a putative crisis in health care. The Walker reforms, like Health Care Reform, have been enacted in the face of strong, to put it mildly, minority-party legislative opposition.
It is not clear to me either whether the Walker reforms poll well–if they have majority support, I am not seeing evidence of strong majority support. It is also interesting that Governor Walker’s strongest selling point for the reforms is how people are going to be pleased with the end result–balanced state budgets, low taxes, strong economy and job opportunities in the state. Mr. Obama is saying pretty much the same thing, you may not like Health Care Reform right now, but wait until it is implemented.
The problem I have is it seems that the entire Right Blogosphere, and I mean all the major players from Glenn Reynolds to your colleagues on Power Line blog and on down the line, are not only supportive of Scott Walker but absolutely committed to what Scott Walker is doing and how he is doing it as being an existential necessity. My mere suggestion on various comments threads that maybe Scott Walker is pursuing a desired goal (ending public employee collective bargaining) but that his tactics are perhaps the problem, that suggestion hasn’t gotten me banned as a troll, but it elicits the response that I am “not getting” the existential seriousness of standing behind Scott Walker. . .
But in the enthusiasm for things Scott Walker, there is even talk of him being drafted for a Presidential run in 2012, no one wants to reflect on whether the “rollout” of the Walker reforms were done in a way that helps the Conservative Movement or perhaps hurts it. Is your recent post, however, suggesting that some reflection on the politics of how conservatives advance their cause is in order? I am concerned that the Scott Walker reforms will result in large election losses for Republicans in 2012 much as Health Care Reform resulted in losses for Democrats in 2010.

There are at least three good issues to think through here, ascending from the abstract to the particular. Is the opposition of Wisconsin Democrats to Gov. Walker’s collective bargaining reforms analogous to Republican opposition to Obamacare? I think several meaningful distinctions can be drawn between the two. First, changes to collective bargaining are not a policy change that affects directly the broad population in the same way as Obamacare; its direct effect is limited to public employees and public employee unions. As such, what we have going on in Wisconsin and elsewhere is a minority of a minority attempting to preserve its politically-attained disproportionate share of the public treasury.
Second, leaving the state, as Wisconsin and also Indiana Democrats did, to stop the democratic process is a rather different thing than voting no as a party, or using the U.S. Senate filibuster to require a supermajority to pass landmark legislation. Here we get into some serious questions about the idea of consent in representative government. The idea of majority rule to decide issues is that it represents a proxy for our unanimous consent on the first principles of democracy (especially that government protects our individual rights). Despite our divisions, abiding by majority rule as it is expressed and modified by successive elections transforms our general consent into an enduring consensus about particulars. This is how, for example, controversial civil rights legislation in the 1960s came to be accepted, even by the Jim Crow south.
By contrast the decision of Wisconsin Democrats to leave the state to stop the democratic process comes very close to the same principle as secession–it represents the withdrawal of the necessary unanimous consent that we will decide our issues through majority rule, and that challenges to majority decisions are made through subsequent elections. This does not contradict my prior argument that passing Obamacare on a party-line majoritarian basis was a mistake. There is a difference to be drawn between calling something a political and policy mistake that is unsustainable and calling it illegitimate. Obama, Reid, and Pelosi were in their rights as leaders who commanded a majority out of the previous two elections to pass Obamacare on a party basis if they wanted to. And Republicans now have the equal right to attempt its repeal and modification. Public opinion will be the ultimate arbiter of its fate.
The question posed here is a good one: Right now polls show Gov. Walker and his measures to be unpopular; Gov. Kasich’s poll numbers in Ohio are also tanking, as his budget cuts are proving severe. (Of course, Gov. Cuomo in New York is cutting spending–and taxes!–and Gov. Brown in California is having to do the same. We’ll have to watch how their public support holds up.) The left’s street theater campaign may be working. Time will tell. For the left’s view of how this might play out, see this article.
Could Gov. Walker have been more politically effective in pursuing his ends? Perhaps. The contrast is Gov. Christie’s in-your-face style in New Jersey, where his popularity has held up, though not massively. Walker seems to be altogether too decent and restrained in his public rhetoric. I am guessing, however, that Gov. Walker was caught by surprise at the extent of the left’s vocal opposition to his designs. Conversely, I think the left, watching how Gov. Christie manhandled them in Jersey, didn’t want that to happen to them again, and decided to take to the streets and turn the volume up to 11.
Increasingly the whole scene right now with regard to public employee union power reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s epic confrontation with the coal miners union in Britain back in the 1980s. (I think Michael Barone or Hugh Hewitt have made this observation already.) That was the battle of Armageddon in British politics; along with her budget measures, it was the make-or-break moment of Thatcher’s first government. If she had lost to the miners, she would have been finished. Things looked very dicey for Thatcher for quite a while, just as they do for Walker right now. Instead, in seeing the matter through it was a pivotal moment for both her and Britain’s rejuvenation. She, like Gov. Christie, was very aggressive in her public confrontation with the unions. Another case study is Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981; he easily won the battle for public opinion in that episode, and that victory had wide effects. Paul Volcker later said it had as much anti-inflationary effect as the Fed’s tight money policy of the time. In this sense, the folks who argue that Walker is facing up to the “existential” fiscal crisis of our time are right. (By the way, Thatcher’s breaking of union power in Britain had the ironic benefit of breaking the total union stranglehold over the Labour Party, making possible the emergence of the more moderate “New Labour” under Tony Blair. This suggests the possibility that if Republicans succeed in breaking the power of public employee unions, the ultimate beneficiary might be the Democratic Party; it would free them at last to support genuine public education reform, for example. Mickey Kaus, call your office.)
Finally, the fight over public employee compensation and union power is merely a skirmish compared to what must come. The main battle over spending will soon shift to where the real money is–entitlements–perhaps as soon as this week, when Paul Ryan will introduce his budget plan. My fellow NoLeftTurns contributor Pete Spillakos has a grim reckoning of how difficult this battle is going to be. If you think public employee unions are reckless and out of control, just wait till the AARP takes to the streets against entitlement reform.

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