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What do Republicans Want?

Palos Verdes, California -- Mitt Romney didn't attend this year's retreat of the Horowitz Freedom Center -- he's got other things on his agenda -- but he was an interrupted presence in the minds of conservative politicians, journalists and business people who gathered here for the weekend in the advent of the most important presidential election since 1980. Remarks were off the record (mine better have been) but I can report one telling incident: a panel on the presidential election featuring four well-known political consultants and journalists turned into a Romney-bashing fest. The man was out of touch, he wasn't a real conservative, he didn't know how to campaign, he was facing inevitable defeat at the hands of Obama, and should be replaced at the convention by Christie or Daniels.

The session's last question fell to me, and I undertook a defense of the former Massachusetts governor. Do you really want Romney to be Scott Walker? I asked, and answer came there none.

This election might be more important than 1980, but it wasn't 1980, because the crisis was of a different order. The problem Republicans face is clear from Wisconson Gov. Scott Walker's troubles. Walker is the most courageous Republican official in the country, the only one to assault the fortified positions occupied by government unions and take on entitlements. For his trouble he is facing a recall election that has the state's undivided attention: a recent poll  shows that Wisconsinites care more about the Walker recall election than the presidential election by a margin of 51-37. Other polls show that Walker has a 50-50 chance of withstanding the recall vote.

Why are the voters of Wisconsin more focused on the state election than the national election? One explanation might be that not much has happened to federal taxes, while state and local taxes have been rising steadily, like the water temperature that boils the proverbial frog. The epicenter of the debt crisis is in the states, and it can't be solved without government union givebacks of already-promised benefits. To my knowledge, large numbers of Americans never have been asked to take lower pensions or more restricted health benefits. That has provoked a degree of rage and upset unlike anything I have ever seen.  A close friend of twenty years with Wisconsin roots cut me off forever after hearing that I had made a small donation to Walker.

Scott Walker is my hero, because he's the only Republican with the guts to start doing what has to be done. As I wrote last November, the gigantic burden of government spending accumulated by Democratic (as well as Republican) administrations is strangling the middle class.

I've published these numbers before, but they bear a reminder. Federal tax revenues remain about 10% below the pre-crisis peak, but state and local tax collections continue to rise. In part, that is because states and localities cannot run budget deficits, unlike the federal government, and must raise taxes to cover their expenses, even while they cut spending. State and local employment has fallen by more than half a million since August 1998, and the layoffs continue.