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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

From the Department of Feigned Indignation

By Rick Hess — March 09, 2011 4 min read
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It’s being played as big news that one consequence of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s efforts to dial back public employee collective bargaining is that it would, gasp, weaken his political opponents. For reasons that continue to elude, Walker and his defenders won’t admit this--so there’s an awkward kabuki dance unfolding in which critics ignore his plan’s substantive merits while feigning shock that he’d try to weaken his political opposition, and Walker and his defenders profess naïveté about the practical impact of his proposal.

As the New York Times editorial page opined the other day, Walker has used Wisconsin’s fiscal crisis as an opportunity to “crush unions” and engage in “destructive game playing.” Or, as one influential pro-school-reform Democrat wrote to me the other day, in response to last week’s piece dinging the Democrats for Education Reform for being so eager to score points at Walker’s expense, “The part you did not get into is how these R’s are using education reform to destroy political opponents.”

It’s so easy to get caught up in the political ramifications that it’s easy to forget, as a government-appointed panel of experts warned in California last month, that public employee pension plans are “dangerously underfunded, the result of overly generous benefit promises, wishful thinking and an unwillingness to plan prudently.”

Let’s be straight: One consequence of Walker’s proposal is that it would weaken his political opponents, and the protestations by Walker and other Republicans that it would not are both disingenuous and painful to watch. Moreover, by trying to justify his proposal to rein in public collective bargaining as a response to short-term budgetary pressures, Walker is both weakening his case and refusing to speak honestly. This proposal isn’t about saving money in the next year or two (as the unions have said, they’ve already agreed to make those short-term concessions), the point is to rein in runaway pols and outsize union demands going forward.

But the hand-wringing by Walker’s critics about the political implications would be much more convincing if they had expressed a similar concern about the perniciousness of Democratic policies that just happened to undermine their political opponents and encourage dependence on government (and thus Democrats). And further, the fact that the proposal would weaken Democrats doesn’t make it misguided or bad policy.

It was President Obama who famously reminded Republicans that “elections have consequences” while promoting health-care and financial legislation that disproportionately benefited Democratic constituencies and weakened Republican ones. He was right; that’s kind of how democracy works. The winning side promotes policies that reflect its preferences--and those, not surprisingly, will tend to advantage its supporters and disadvantage its opponents (that’s often a reason that folks line up where they do).

After all, whatever the substantive merits of the policies, Democratic efforts to negate the Defense of Marriage Act, repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” pass health-care reform, and adopt financial regulation all just happened to weaken the statutory standing or the marketplace autonomy of conservative constituencies. Indeed, progressive advocates have gleefully argued that their positions on immigration policy and card check would strengthen Democratic constituencies and expand the Democratic coalition. Yet, at least in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, on CNN, and in edu-circles, such efforts go unobserved or are deemed unremarkable.

The bottom line: nothing here is new. FDR and his advisers knew that one political benefit of the New Deal was that it would stitch together a coalition that benefited from a variety of activist federal policies. For Democrats, a happy result of Medicare was the degree to which it gave seniors a heightened stake in federal largesse and tamed the once virulently anti-D.C. might of the American Medical Association. Jimmy Carter promised to create the U.S. Department of Education as a sop to the National Education Association, with an eye to boosting the visibility and strengthening the hand of the edu-lobby.

Obviously, Republicans have been equally interested in using policy to secure electoral advantage; after all, part of the appeal of airline, telecom, or trucking deregulation was that it loosened corporations’ ties to Democratic leaders and strengthened their affinity for Republican policymakers.

Do Walker and other Republican governors stand to benefit politically from efforts to curtail the scope of public employee collective bargaining? Yes. Are their efforts motivated, in part, by that fact? I assume so. Do I wish they’d be more explicit about acknowledging that? Sure. But they’re only doing what their opponents have done when given a chance, and the fascination with this point strikes me as a bizarre double-standard.

The only real question is whether Walker’s proposals are sound, sensible, and good for Wisconsin. For critics to dodge that question by suggesting his pursuing policies that confer political benefit is new, weird, or illegitimate is disingenuous, at best--and flagrantly dishonest and hypocritical at worst.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.