Published for www.washingtonpost.com, June 6th, 2012
In Wisconsin — which has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan — a simple ideological choice would have been more favorable to Walker’s Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett. The voters of the Badger State do not object to the idea of an activist, generous state government. The problem for Democrats in Wisconsin and elsewhere is that state and local budget debates unite conservatives while dividing voters who believe in active government.
One portion of the progressive coalition — public-sector unions — used the good economic times of the 1990s and 2000s to lock in generous health and pension benefits at the state and local level through collective bargaining. Politicians favorable to those unions enjoyed reliable political support. But the Great Recession dried up revenues, making health and pension commitments unsustainable, forcing some states into fiscal crisis and some cities toward bankruptcy, and threatening the provision of public services.
Other members of the progressive coalition value public services highly — parks, libraries, public safety, education, support for the homeless and such. They are joined by civic-minded independents and non-libertarian conservatives. These voters have seen the commitments made to public-sector unions devouring state and local budgets, leaving little room for any initiatives in the public good.