Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why Wisconsin Democrats are Fumbling on their Message

There was a time when the rights of workers, even government workers, to collectively bargain, was taken for granted. There was a time when federal budget deficits were accepted as a necessarily evil but it was only a problem talked about and no one addressed. There was a time when it was political suicide to talk about extending the retirement age or reducing Social Security benefits. Whatever that is left of the political consensus of the last half-century is unraveling today into a cantankerous politics in which settled issues are now up for political re-litigation. 

Democrats are on the defensive because they have never taken seriously the diversity of the Republican party, and have therefore failed to anticipate the insurgency of fiscal conservatism that began in 2009. They are fumbling to define a strategy to defend labor in Wisconsin because they have for so long been fighting a different enemy, neo-conservatism – which one might argue is a familiar cousin to liberalism in their shared  commitment to budget deficits as an embarrassing but necessarily evil. 

For so long relegated to second-place within the Republican fold, fiscal conservatism is today the pre-eminent breed of conservatism, sexier even than neo-conservatism. For so long presumed to be the heart of the Democratic party, labor knew not what to say when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker threw them a curveball, attacking the right to collective bargaining which had been entrenched for the last half-century. Democrats know how to protest wars, but they haven't had to aggressively organize themselves to defend labor rights for half a century! Obviously, there are a many number of ways of making up a budget shortfall without attacking collective bargaining rights, but Wisconsin Democrats did not dive straight into articulating this odd connection. Instead, they appear to have conceded to the framing of the problem in fiscal terms (by accepting the Governor's proposal that state employees pay 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions and 12.6 percent of their health-care premiums) and ended up restricting the range of argumentative exits left to them.

Successful political aspirants of the 21st century must understand the tectonic shifts which are occurring with increasing regularity in our politics. And politicians who are not nimble responders to the political cleavages of the day are condemned to fight the wrong battles. The reason why John Kerry lost in 2004 was because he was cast and perceived by a sufficient majority to be a flip-flopping pacifist. 2004 was not the time to challenge the wars abroad. (2008 was.) The reason why Democrats lost so many seats in Congress in 2010 was not because the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan weren't going well enough, but because a new faction within the Republican party was able to bring domestic politics, and in particular fiscal issues, back on the national agenda. 

For Democrats to stand a fighting chance in the congressional elections in 2012, they have to take the fiscal bull by the horns, even if it means renegotiating the relationship between the party and the clients of the Democratically-sponsored social-welfare state.  Similarly, for social conservatives who want to advance their cause, they must piggy-back it on libertarian issues, as advocates for the de-funding of Planned Parenthood have wisely done. 

Republican primary contenders should also note that seasons have changed. Dick Cheney is out, and Paul Ryan is in. There is a new issue du jour in town – though for how long, we don’t know – but it will likely be the major issue of contention in next year's election, with every other issue rotating in its orbit. 

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