Three years ago it seemed that Gov. Scott Walker was leading a wave of anti-union sentiment. He had effectively stripped Wisconsin public sector workers of collective bargaining rights. He had built a national network of thankful corporate donors. He had survived a union-backed recall attempt in a presumably blue state.
Now it is clearer how narrow his base of support was, and how limited is the strategy of union-bashing.
Walker turned out to be a one-trick pony. His high water mark was his January address to the Iowa Freedom Summit in which he recounted his glorious union battles.
But his inclination to tie everything back to union-busting quickly became pathetic. It was only one month later when he said about ISIS, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe.” Even conservatives recognized that was a disturbingly glib answer to a complex foreign policy challenge.
In the waning days of his campaign, he offered his one big idea: eliminate federal worker unions and abolish the National Labor Relations Board. Nobody cared.
Walker had other problems: ludicrous arguments to justify flip-flopping on immigration, an oddly public cram session on foreign policy which failed to churn out an A+ student, limp debate performances and a lack of any compelling policy ideas.
But all that stems from his flawed assumption that union-busting would be enough.
It was enough to bankroll a super PAC, since that only requires a handful of corporate backers, and there are a few who are obsessed with unions. But super PACs don’t pay staff, transportation or office space. You need a broader base of donors to directly fund your campaign, and Walker didn’t have a broad base of substance to attract them.
Perhaps Walker’s perception was warped by the love he got from the Koch Brothers and their ilk.
Why isn’t union-bashing enough? Whatever you think of unions, there’s no plausible argument that unions are the core of what’s ailing the middle class and the larger economy. After all, only 6.6 percent of private sector workers are in a union.
Even if you think unions are bad for business, well, congratulations! There aren’t very many. However, that means you can’t blame them for the market crash, the pace of job creation or the problem of flat wages.
Walker’s 2011 fight was against public sector union workers, using them as a scapegoat to direct voters’ anger over their own economic struggles. Sure, Walker was able to win that argument in Wisconsin, in isolation. But kicking government workers doesn’t do a whole lot for anybody else. And it’s not a basis for kick-starting the economy.
It may not seem like Republican voters are interested in substance now, as a trio of unqualified pretenders with thin platforms – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – are sucking up so much oxygen. But the donor class, beyond Walker’s anti-union clique, is interested in a candidate that can go the distance and eventually outclass the hucksters.
Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz all surpassed Walker in direct fundraising. Bush and Rubio have expended effort developing actual policy ideas. Cruz only runs on his desire to obstruct, but at least he is interested in obstructing a wide range of policy ideas.
After Walker’s demise, Republicans might want to think about trying to appeal to union workers instead of bashing them.
It’s not like union workers are lost causes. Forty percent of people in union households voted for Mitt “47 Percent” Romney, of all people, as they did for John McCain and George W. Bush.
And that’s without trying. Just think what Republicans could accomplish if they did try to court unions and offered sincere policy ideas for strengthening the hand of workers.