Updated at 2:37 p.m. on February 22.
The seething throngs of protesters at the Wisconsin Capitol this week will continue to provide a diversion from the more far-reaching questions that will greet members of Congress next week when they return to tackle some of the difficult budget issues facing the country.
But as lawmakers grapple with the tough questions, from how to fund this year’s budget to how to deal with federal debt woes that have been festering for decades, the arguments and the tactics in Washington and Madison are beginning to mirror each other, and increasingly the current fight seems to foreshadow the larger one to come.
While the drum-pounding and pizza-munching demonstrators in the Wisconsin cold are focused on blocking Gov. Scott Walker’s crackdown against unions, the austerity-inspired unrest will add urgency to the Beltway debate about how to steady the nation’s finances, and at its core the Wisconsin fight is a proxy for the large national questions about what the government should do, how much it should cost, and who should pay for it.
Coming at one of the most fiscally volatile periods for the nation in decades, the Wisconsin showdown adds to the cauldron of thorny policy dilemmas facing governments from Washington to every state capital—short-term spending, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, federal debt, tax reform, and now the size and cost of the public sector work force.
Wisconsin has done more than polarize and excite the true believers in both parties; it has served to galvanize already amped conservative populists who have increasingly discussed a “new class” of workers being forged among public employees enjoying union-rigged perks, and liberal populists who see in Madison a conservative conspiracy to end decades of hard-won rights for the working man.
The Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner circulated a poll Monday showing the majority of Wisconsinites siding against Walker, 53 percent disagreeing with his position and 43 percent with him. Asked if state workers agreeing to pay more for health coverage and retirement plans—as Democrats and labor leaders insist they already have—should have their collective bargaining rights slashed, just 21 percent said yes, and 74 percent no. The results are based on two surveys of 1,006 total likely voters: one conducted February 16-20 with an error margin of plus/minus 4.0 percentage points, and a slightly smaller one conducted February 19-20 with an error margin of 4.9 points.
The face-off in Wisconsin bears echoes of the national fiscal fight. Walker justifies his actions by asserting that his state is “broke”—the same word House Speaker John Boehner has used over and over to describe Washington’s fiscal situation. And the new governor has joined congressional Republicans in insisting that the private sector has long been subsidizing the public sector at an unaffordable rate of taxation.
Similarly, defending the unions in Wisconsin is a template for the type of defense the left is mounting over entitlements: traditional benefits that have accrued to the working and middle classes over decades should not be sacrificed to the current economic woes. And the corollary to the taxpayer-provided subsidy argument is the venerable rebuttal that the problems of the whole should not be fixed quickly by targeting workers.
“I think you’re going to see more people being willing to speak out,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told National Journal on Tuesday when asked how the Badger State’s convulsions might influence the national discussion. “People in Wisconsin spontaneously came out and said, ‘We’ve had enough of this.’... If more people do that, I think it will have a fairly profound effect on the debate in Washington as well, because the Republicans won’t be able to pretend that workers don’t exist, that you can just keep cutting, that you can keep going after the middle class and taking it out of their hide.”
Elected Republicans reject the notion that their foray against collective bargaining represents an anti-union crusade, arguing instead that Walker’s efforts are part of his responsibility to impose dramatic corrective fiscal measures. “It is about the budget. Everything we’re talking about is about the budget,” Walker said during Tuesday’s Morning Joe on MSNBC. Walker and other Republicans have repeatedly pointed out that Wisconsin public-sector pension and health care plans are starkly more generous than those granted private-sector workers.
Labor, unsurprisingly, sees it differently, and has cast the fight as an assault on the middle class.
“It has nothing to do with the budget. This has everything to do with hurting workers in Wisconsin and everything to do with [Walker’s] paying back the CEOs and corporate lobbyists,” said Trumka, whose umbrella group has been careful to depict the demonstrations as organic and local, sensitive to Walker’s charges that outside meddlers are to blame for the disturbances.
Trumka is reluctant to join the narrative that Wisconsin represents something of a 38th parallel for the labor movement, the crossing of which would relegate unions to retreat from decades of gains. What he and other Democrats truly want, beyond a local victory: a populist counterpunch to the energized grassroots on the right, just in time to prop up the Democratic flank in the higher-stakes battles ahead.