If the Republicans are looking to restore their credibility with the American people and differentiate themselves from the Democrats, they might do well to focus on two issues. Both relate to fundamental liberties, both put the Republicans on the same side as large majorities of American voters, and both have the Democrats trapped by virtue of their dependence on Big Labor. In short, these are winning issues, both on policy and on politics, for Republicans.
The first is school reform. The Republicans in Congress need look no further than out of their windows to see opportunity. In the horrid Washington D.C. school system, the Schools Chancellor, 38-year-old single mother Michelle Rhee, is struggling to upgrade standards, institute charter schools and school choice, and, if needed, break the back of the teachers’ union which has stood foursquare against her efforts to remove bad teachers. The Washington Post reports that she and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty are contemplating a “Plan B” to declare a “state of emergency” and allow the school district to bypass union negotiations.
This, of course, would cause a major clash with the teachers’ union and their Democratic allies, specifically President-elect Barack Obama. In the last presidential debate, Obama offered mild support for Rhee’s efforts to institute charter schools within the district, but falsely suggested she did not favor a voucher program to allow students to select private schools (some of the very institutions Obama and his wife are now considering for their daughters). In fact, Rhee favors both — and is now apparently willing to battle the teachers’ union to the death. (Unlike the Obamas, her daughters attend public schools.)
This presents a golden opportunity for Congressional Republicans who would have to vote on a measure to declare the D.C. school district in a “state of emergency.” What better way to stand up for parental rights, take the side of minority and poor children, and make clear which party stands with Big Labor and which with educational reform advocates? In this fight, there likely are few parents in the country who wouldn’t be cheering on Rhee, Fenty, and the Republicans.
And this is not the only opportunity for Republicans to highlight the Democrats’ co-dependent relationship with Big Labor. High on the wish list for the union bosses is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would, in essence, abolish secret ballots in union elections. Even George McGovern has opposed the measure, declaring to Democrats: “To fail to ensure the right to vote free of intimidation and coercion from all sides would be a betrayal of what we have always championed.”
But Big Labor is licking its chops. The New York Times reported:
With union membership sliding to 7.5 percent of the private-sector work force, one-third the rate in 1983, unions see enactment of the bill as the single most important step toward reversing their loss of membership and power. Some labor leaders predict that if the bill is passed, unions, which have 16 million members nationwide, would add at least five million workers to their rolls over the next few years.
That would mean millions more in union dues, and millions more available to the Democratic Party which already enjoyed an estimated one billion dollars in hard and soft union money in the 2008 election cycle. One need only look to the Big Three car companies’ outlandish 52% wage differential with non-union car producers in the U.S. to appreciate the impact on the American economy.
Aside from subjecting thousands of new businesses to coercion by unions, the bill would also require a government mediator to impose wages and terms and conditions of employment if union and management negotiators could not reach a deal. The prospect of Obama-appointed officials instructing thousands of businesses how much to pay their workers and what work rules to apply understandably sends shivers up the spines of America’s business leaders.
The notion that the secret ballots, which are sacred in all political elections and even internal Congressional leadership fights, would be abolished to satisfy Big Labor does not sit well with most Americans.
Polling taken earlier in the year shows voters strongly oppose doing away with secret ballot elections. The margins in a number of key swing states were more than two to one against discarding secret ballots. This is true in union households, where 69% of voters opposed the measure.
Nevertheless, the President-elect has indicated his support for this measure and Big Labor’s allies in Congress are nearly certain to force a vote. Once again the Republicans have the chance to stand up for a basic constitutional principle — the secret ballot — and highlight that the Democrats’ interests are not aligned with workers, but with Big Labor bosses who stuffed their campaign coffers this past election. It is rare where politicians can be right on both principle and politics, and this is one of those few instances.
So Republicans — who have argued and bickered among themselves in the weeks since the election — have two ready-made issues which can unite the party. Whether they favor “traditional” conservative values or urge the party to move forward with “reform” (or both, as most conservatives actually do), the vast majority of Republicans can rally around secret ballots and school choice and oppose union bullying. It is not every day that Republicans can make common cause with inner city parents and blue collar workers, but these two issues offer them just such an opportunity.
If the Republicans want to get their mojo back they have their chance on not just one, but two high profile issues. Let us see if their Congressional leadership is competent enough to seize their opportunities. Chances like this aren’t likely to come along again soon.