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Out of Wisconsin, a lesson in leadership for Obama

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Tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside the Wisconsin Capitol for a fifth day of demonstrations against a budget bill that would strip public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights. (Feb. 19)

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Monday, February 21, 2011; 8:00 PM

MADISON, WIS.

Hitherto, when this university town and seat of state government applauded itself as "the Athens of the Midwest," the sobriquet suggested kinship with the cultural glories of ancient Greece. Now, however, Madison resembles contemporary Athens.

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This capital has been convulsed by government employees sowing disorder in order to repeal an election. A minority of the minority of Wisconsin residents who work for government (300,000 of them) are resisting changes to benefits that most of Wisconsin's 5.6 million residents resent financing.

Serene at the center of this storm sits Republican Scott Walker, 43, in the governor's mansion library, beneath a portrait of Ronald Reagan. Walker has seen this movie before.

As Milwaukee County executive, he had similar dust-ups with government workers' unions, and when the dust settled, he was resoundingly reelected, twice. If his desire to limit collective bargaining by such unions to salary issues makes him the "Midwest Mussolini" - some protesters did not get the memo about the new civility - other supposed offenses include wanting state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pension plans (most pay less than 1 percent), which would still be less than the average in the private sector. He also wants them to pay 12.6 percent of the cost of their health care premiums - up from about 6 percent but still much less than the private-sector average.

He campaigned on this. Union fliers distributed during the campaign attacked his "5 and 12" plan. He says his brother, a hotel banquet manager, and his sister-in-law, who works at Sears, "would love to have" what he is offering the unions.

For some of Madison's graying baby boomers, these protests are a jolly stroll down memory lane. Tune up the guitars! "This is," Walker says, "very much a '60s mentality."

He does, however, think there is sincerity unleavened by information: Many protesters do not realize that most worker protections - merit hiring; just cause for discipline and termination - are the result not of collective bargaining but of Wisconsin's uniquely strong and century-old civil service law.

"I am convinced," he says, "this is about money - but not the employees' money." It concerns union dues, which he wants the state to stop collecting for the unions, just as he wants annual votes by state employees on re-certifying the unions. He says many employees pay $500 to $600 annually in union dues - teachers pay up to $1,000. Given a choice, many might prefer to apply this money to health care premiums or retirement plans. And he thinks "eventually" most will say about the dues collectors, "What do we need this for?"

Such unions are government organized as an interest group to lobby itself to do what it always wants to do anyway - grow. These unions use dues extracted from members to elect their members' employers. And governments, not disciplined by the need to make a profit, extract government employees' salaries from taxpayers. Government sits on both sides of the table in cozy "negotiations" with unions.

A few days after President Obama submitted a budget that would increase the federal deficit, he tried to sabotage Wisconsin's progress toward solvency. The Washington Post: "The president's political machine worked in close coordination . . . with state and national union officials to mobilize thousands of protesters to gather in Madison and to plan similar demonstrations in other state capitals." Walker notes that in the 1990s, Wisconsin was a trendsetter regarding school choice and welfare reform. Obama, he thinks, may be worried that Wisconsin might again be a harbinger.

He also thinks Obama's intervention demonstrates why presidents should serve apprenticeships as governors. He says that Obama, in the Illinois Legislature and the U.S. Senate, "was a liberal among liberals," and liberals are his base, and his staff comes from it. Governors, Walker says, get used to considering the interests of broad constituencies.

Walker's calm comportment in this crisis is reminiscent of President Reagan's during his 1981 stand against the illegal strike by air traffic controllers, and Margaret Thatcher's in the 1984 showdown with the miners' union over whether unions or Parliament would govern Britain. Walker, by a fiscal seriousness contrasting with Obama's lack thereof, and Obama, by inciting defenders of the indefensible, have made three things clear:

First, the Democratic Party is the party of government, not only because of its extravagant sense of government's competence and proper scope, but also because the party's base is government employees. Second, government employees have an increasingly adversarial relationship with the governed. Third, Obama's "move to the center" is fictitious.

georgewill@washpost.com



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