Tuesday's Biggest Loser: The Union Agenda

If you were watching television on Tuesday night as the election returns came in showing Republicans capturing the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey, you probably missed seeing the biggest losers of the evening. You may have caught the concession speech of Creigh Deeds, who ran 12% behind Barack Obama's winning percentage of the vote in Virginia, and that of Jon Corzine who, after spending over $100 million of his own money on three campaigns, ran 13% behind Obama's winning percentage in New Jersey and got evicted from Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion in Princeton.

But you missed seeing the guy who may have been the biggest loser of all--a man who according to recently released White House logs has been a guest in the White House 22 times since Barack Obama became president, more than any other single individual.

That man is Andy Stern, who has boasted that the Service Employees International Union, which he heads, ponied up something like $60 million for Barack Obama and other Democrats in the 2008 campaign cycle. Altogether, Mr. Stern and other labor union leaders reportedly gave Democrats some $400 million last year.

The Gallup organization reports that Americans are less pro-union than they have been at any time since it first started asking the question in 1936.

This was, to borrow a word from Mr. Obama, an audacious gamble. Unions these days represent only 8% of private-sector employees (and that's counting General Motors and Chrysler as private sector) and some unions went into debt to make these contributions. Public employee unions of course are financed by taxpayers, who pay the salaries from which dues are extracted, but even so their resources are ultimately limited.

What have the unions gotten in return? Some not insignificant things. The Obama administration bludgeoned General Motors and Chrysler bondholders, in what I called an episode of "gangster government," and effectively turned over the two auto companies to the United Auto Workers. The building trades got project labor agreements--i.e., plenty of dues money flowing to their coffers--in the $787 billion stimulus package.

A lot of that stimulus money went as well to state and local governments. The goal was to spare public employee union members from the vicissitudes of the recession to which the rest of us are subject--and to keep that dues money flowing in.

But the union leaders have been frustrated on their No. 1 goal, the card check bill that would effectively abolish the secret ballot in unionization elections. A couple of bulky guys in varsity jackets visit your home and, um, persuade you to sign a card, and later the union--with the help of a mandatory arbitration clause--impose contracts on employees and rake in the dues money.

Just about every House Democrat voted for the misleadingly titled "Employee Free Choice Act," and every Senate Democrat cosponsored it when George W. Bush was president and it had no chance of becoming law. As Barack Obama was inaugurated, Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder was speculating on how many Republicans would come on board.

Instead, support evaporated as Democrats from places as dissimilar as Arkansas and California thought hard about what life would be like with card check. Today the bill looks dead no matter how many Democrats are elected to Congress.

And after Tuesday's elections, it looks like fewer Democrats will be elected to Congress in 2010 than in 2008. In the election results and the exit polls there are clear signs that the Obama majority coalition has splintered.

Mr. Obama benefited last year from a big turnout of young voters, who backed him by a 66% to 32% margin. This year young voters formed only about half as large a percentage of the electorate in Virginia and New Jersey as they did in 2008, and in Virginia they voted about as Republican as their elders.

The big-government programs of Obama Democrats evidently have less appeal than those trendy posters and inspiring rallies and cries of "We are the change we are seeking." I have yet to see survey research showing that young Americans want to work under union contracts, with their 5,000 pages of work rules and rigid seniority systems. That doesn't sound like a tune that appeals to the iPod generation.

Economically, the Obama majority was a top-and-bottom coalition. The Democratic ticket carried voters with incomes under $50,000 and over $200,000, and lost those in between. As the shrewd liberal analyst Thomas Edsall has noted, there's a tension between what these groups want. High earners in non-Southern suburbs have been voting Democratic since the mid-1990s largely because of their liberal views on cultural issues; low earners vote Democratic because they want more government money shoveled their way.

Tuesday's elections suggest those whose money gets shoveled are having second thoughts about this odd-couple coalition. In Virginia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell carried affluent and immigrant-heavy Fairfax County, which Barack Obama carried by 21%. In New Jersey, Republican Christopher Christie cut Democrat Jon Corzine's margin in demographically similar Bergen County from 16% in 2005 to 1%. A Republican was elected county executive in Westchester County, New York, and the Republican candidate for state Supreme Court in Pennsylvania carried the four-county suburban Philadelphia area--turf that voted 57% for Barack Obama in 2008.

A health-care bill financed by either higher taxes on high earners or on those with generous, employer-provided health insurance, looks like a hard sell in high-earner constituencies. It looks politically risky especially for newly elected Democrats.

Mr. McDonnell carried nine of Virginia's 11 congressional districts, and the three districts that Democrats captured from Republicans last year voted 62%, 61% and 55% for the Republican this time. No wonder Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is talking about postponing health-care votes until next year.

The unions' unprecedented political push in 2008 has not been unnoticed by the voters. Mr. Corzine's cozy relationship with public employee union heads proved a liability in New Jersey, and in Virginia Mr. McDonnell campaigned hard against card check and the Obama agenda. The Gallup organization reports that Americans are less pro-union than they have been at any time since it first started asking the question in 1936. Maybe around the country union members will start asking their leaders what they have gotten for all the money they've spent on politics.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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