What Governor Walker has proven to American voters, is that "we don't have to take this anymore." Delivering on your
campaign promises should mean something. Being prudent with taxpayer's dollars should mean something. No more
leading from behind like Obama's stooges. Now it's time to take back the government and our nation from liars, and
By ROSS DOUTHAT
But neither is it anything like good news for liberalism. We are entering a political era that will feature many contests like the war over collective bargaining in Wisconsin: Grinding struggles in which sweeping legislation is passed by party-line votes and then the politicians responsible hunker down and try to survive the backlash. There will be no total victory in this era, but there will be gains and losses — and the outcome in the Walker recall is a warning to Democrats that their position may be weaker than many optimistic liberals thought.
To understand the broader trends at work, a useful place to turn is Jay Cost’s essay on “The Politics of Loss” in the latest issue of National Affairs. For most of the post-World War II era, Cost argues, our debates over taxing and spending have taken place in an atmosphere of surplus. The operative question has been how best to divide a growing pie, which has enabled politicians in both parties to practice a kind of ideologically-flexible profligacy. Republicans from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush have increased spending, Democrats from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton have found ways to cut taxes, and the great American growth machine has largely kept the toughest choices off the table.
But not anymore. Between our slowing growth and our unsustainable spending commitments, “the days when lawmakers could give to some Americans without shortchanging others are over; the politics of deciding who loses what, and when and how, is upon us.” In this era, debates will be increasingly zero-sum, bipartisan compromise will be increasingly difficult, and “the rules and norms of our politics that several generations have taken for granted” will fade away into irrelevance.
It’s useful to think of Obama’s stimulus bill and Walker’s budget repair bill as mirror image exercises in legislative shock and awe.
At both the state and national level, then, the two coalitions are aiming for a mix of daring on offense, fortitude on defense and ruthless counterattacks whenever possible. The goal is to simultaneously maximize the opportunities presented to one’s own side and punish the other party for trying to do the same.
That’s obviously what the organizers of the recall hoped to do to Walker – to punish his union-busting and spending cuts as thoroughly as House Democrats were punished in the 2010 mid-term elections for the votes they cast on the health care bill and the stimulus. The fact that the labor unions and liberal activists failed where the Tea Party largely succeeded sends a very different message, though: It tells officeholders that it’s safer to take on left-wing interest groups than conservative ones (the right outraised and outspent the left by a huge margin in the recall election), safer to cut government than to increase revenue, safer to face down irate public sector employees than irate taxpayers.
A similar message is currently being telegraphed by the respective postures of the two parties in Washington. The House Republicans have spent the past two years taking tough votes on entitlement reform, preparing themselves for an ambitious offensive should 2012 deliver the opportunity to cast those same votes and have them count. The Senate Democrats, on the other hand, have failed to even pass a budget: There is no Democratic equivalent of Paul Ryan’s fiscal blueprint, no Democratic plan to swallow hard and raise middle class taxes the way Republicans look poised to swallow hard and overhaul Medicare. Indeed, there’s no liberal agenda to speak of at the moment, beyond a resounding “no!” to whatever conservatism intends to do.
That “no!” might still be enough to win Barack Obama re-election. But November 2012 will just be one battle in a longer war, and the outcome in Wisconsin suggests that the edge in that war currently (and to some extent unexpectedly, given the demographic trends that favor the left) belongs to a limited government conservatism. The Democrats threw almost everything they had at Scott Walker, and it wasn’t nearly enough. And when you fail in what is essentially a defensive campaign, it makes it that much more difficult to get back on offense.