James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Civil War 2.0 may turn governors into presidents

Feb 24, 2011 18:04 UTC

Six men with the rank of general during the Civil War went on to become  president of the United States. But a new kind of union battle — one being fought in places like Trenton and Madison and Columbus and Indianapolis — may be forging the next generation of leaders who will ascend to the White House. How state governors fare as commanders in this escalating conflict with Big Government Labor may determine who makes it all the way and who falls short.

For the most part, the political backlash against public unions is happening in the states. That’s where employee benefits are creating long-term budget problems. Total unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities could be as much as $3.5 trillion.

Savvy governors can thrust an issue like public sector compensation into the national consciousness and create a political niche for themselves.  And American voters like to promote state bosses  to national CEO. President Barack Obama was never a governor, but two-term predecessors George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all were. The last sitting U.S. senator before Obama to go directly to the White House was John Kennedy in 1961.

In New Jersey, Chris Christie’s efforts at austerity have made him a leading 2016 GOP contender with many Republican activists still hoping he’ll change his mind and make a run against Obama next year. Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker has burst into national prominence by trying to strip public unions of some bargaining rights. And in liberal New York, Democrat Andrew Cuomo’s adversarial approach to labor might help his centrist appeal should he cast an eye on the Oval Office.

Among Republican activists, it’s almost impossible to be too tough on unions. That’s where the risk of overreach starts cropping up. Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, a possible 2012 candidate, already has killed collective bargaining for state workers. Yet conservatives balk because he won’t prohibit making union membership a condition for employment. Daniels sees that as a needless fight with organized labor, whose influence is already waning. As Josh Barro of the Manhattan Institute notes on his blog:

As of 2010, only 8.2 percent of private-sector workers in Indiana were members of unions. That’s a bit above the national average of 6.9 percent, owing to the state’s industrial base, but it’s also falling faster than in most states: down 37 percent in the last decade, compared to 22 percent nationally. Private firms don’t appear to fear excessive union power in Indiana; indeed, the state has had significant success in drawing non-union Japanese auto factories.

The political subtleties sometimes get lost in the heat of battle. Some in the Tea Party are bashing Christie for increasing the state’s spending in his newly announced budget. But the governor is trying to negotiate a deal with Democrats to go easier in exchange for sweeping pension reform. And if Walker should settle for something less than total surrender or go too far by firing workers, his sudden ascent could come to a halt.

The fight against public unions and for fiscal responsibility may look like to create a clear path to the presidency for now. But governors going down that road will need to beware of the many political mines strewn along the way. Still, a future American president may have his or her mettle tested in this new civil war.

COMMENT

Cal13, even if they can’t begin collecting signatures yet, whoever wants to recall Gov. Walker can certainly get started organizing. Has that happened?

At all?

Posted by McGehee | Report as abusive

Why Chris Christie’s war may determine America’s future

Dec 20, 2010 20:27 UTC

Why the combative governor of New Jersey must succeed in dismantling the NJ teachers unions:

There are many teachers who inspire students. And then there’s Curtis Robinson, the sort of teacher who inspires tenure reformers. During his 18 years teaching disabled students in Paterson, Robinson hurled classroom chairs, punched a boy in the chest for failing to do his homework and shoved another kid against a blackboard until he cried, staff and students said.

Robinson still insists he had a gift with children. But he admits that using cocaine after school early in his career sometimes made him “preoccupied.” “Immediately after work, I’d have a line or two,” he told The Record in August. “I been teaching so long, you can function with your eyes closed.”

That’s probably true, thanks to the extensive job protections for teachers in New Jersey. Because Robinson was tenured, it took more than four years of legal proceedings to fire him, costing the state more than $100,000 in legal costs.

Please, read the whole thing.

Chris Christie’s presidential campaign speech

Nov 22, 2010 16:51 UTC

Just substitute “America” for “New Jersey” and replace “North Carolina,”  ”Florida” and “Virginia” with “China” and it works pretty well (via New York Magazine):

It was another day in October, another town hall, this time at a South Brunswick firehouse. For 90 minutes, anticipation had been building for a display of rhetorical fireworks. But the meeting’s last question came from a 10-year-old girl who was inviting the governor to speak at her school, and the Christie staffers seemed resigned to leaving the town hall without a moment in the bag. But then Christie did something unexpected. He created another type of moment.

He launched into a reverie about wanting to give the girl the same “great New Jersey life” he and others have had. “As I look out in the crowd, I think most of us have lived a little life, and we probably lived it here,” he said in a voice that was softer than his usual bellow. “And we’re still here, which means we love this place, because there’s no good financial reason for us to be staying. New Jersey is an actor, a player in our lives. And I want this to be that place for her.” Christie told of how he was able to raise his family in New Jersey not far from where he grew up, so his parents could be involved in the lives of his four children, and how he worried that opportunity might not be available to others in the future “because they simply will not be able to afford it. They’ll be forced to make the choice to go someplace else, where it’s easier to find a job, where it’s less expensive to live, where they’re going to build a new life that’ll be apart from us.” He continued, “I don’t want our generation to be the one that has to hear about the great North Carolina life that our children and grandchildren have, the great Florida life they have, the great Virginia life they have, and have to wonder, If we had done the tough things we needed to do, could they have stayed here.”

As Christie spoke, the firehouse fell completely quiet, save for the hum of the ventilation system. A silver-haired woman a few seats down from me dabbed at her eyes. “And so we’ve got a choice to make,” Christie said. “We can bury our heads in the sand, we can surround ourselves with the creature comforts that life in New Jersey has provided to us … or at this moment in our history, we can say, ‘To hell with that, it’s hard, I’m going to have to sacrifice something,’ but I want this state to be a place where my kids and grandkids can grow up and have the great life that I had.”

Christie’s moment of fiscal opportunity

Jul 12, 2010 15:04 UTC

The end of this NYTimes piece on N.J. Gov. Chris Christie sums up why Uncle Sam should not bail out the states:

It remains to be seen how well Mr. Christie will wear on New Jersey voters. Over the next year, people will begin to see the effects of his policies in their schools and towns, in his cut in funds for family planning or, for government workers, in their paychecks. The need to focus on fiscal issues has obscured some other areas where his positions are less popular, like his opposition to abortion.

It is also unclear how he would govern in boom times, when austerity is a harder sell. The governor said he would have preferred not to make some of his budget cuts, but suggested that in any climate he would have pushed for less government.

Me:  The economic crisis has created a moment of opportunity to make the sorts of budgetary changes need to put states on a sustainable path. This moment is being missed on the federal level. It is also illustrative that CC is focusing on cutting spending rather raising taxes, the exact opposite of the medicine that liberal/centrist DC policy wonks advocate.

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