Local sport radio talk-show host Michael Felger likes to ask "What are we trying to do here?" whenever means and ends don't seem to be aligning. The recent commentary on Mitch Daniels' refusal to focus on right-to-work legislation in the face of a walkout by Indiana's Democratic state reps has me asking the same thing. So here are some points,
1. This isn't about public employee unions. As Avik Roy pointed out, Daniels has already ended collective bargaining for state employees and his proposed education bill would curtail collective bargaining for teachers along lines similar to Scott Walker's, while vastly expanding school choice.
2. This line from NRO's The Corner comments is very interesting. The commenter writes in response to Daniels, " Palin 2012 The lady knows how to fight" What does this mean? As governor, Daniels has slashed spending, instituted market-oriented health care reforms, signed pro-life legislation, taken on the public employee unions, and won a fight for a cap on property taxes in the Indiana state constitution. Now, in the second half of his second term, he is working for a radical right-leaning education reform plan. To the extent that "fighting" figures of speech have a place in our democratic politics, hasn't Daniels not only fought but also won the kinds of major substantive victories that have been all too rare on the center-right? What are we trying to do here?
3. But I do think that the commenter is getting at something important in our political culture. Even though Palin never turned Alaska into a right-to-work state, and Alaska state employees are unionized, she is able to stir the US vs. THEM emotions of many conservatives. She might not have instituted an HSA/catastrophic coverage program but she wrote about death panels. She fights. This reminds of how some liberals responded to Howard Dean. He wasn't much more liberal than your average Democratic presidential contender (in some ways he was less liberal), but he gave many liberals the sense that he shared their frustrations and their contempt for President Bush. That created a powerful bond for a while, but it also limited his appeal beyond his largely white upper middle-class liberal base. Palin has a wider base, but the point isn't Palin or Daniels or anybody else. It is that any conservative who wants to get elected President in 2012 will have to engage conservatives not only on substance, but by appealing to their sentiments. There is more than one way to do this. Obama appealed to the sentiments of liberals even more strongly than Dean, but he was far less alienating to persuadable. The trick for a reformist conservative presidential candidate will be to be able to speak movingly to conservatives and persuadables at the same time about the kinds of policy changes we need. This politician would have to be an authentic conservative without seeming like a rightworld provincial. Those are some choppy cultural waters to navigate, but it isn't impossible. Chris Christie is one example of how to do it and Bob McDonnell is another - though I think they would both run into some authenticity issues of their own if they ran for President. Maybe Daniels will be able to do that if he runs for President and gets into campaign mode rather than pass major legislative priorities mode (and let's not dismiss the possibility that getting the most possible good policy right now might end up being good politics in the end.) Maybe he won't. But if we are going to get the kind of reforms we need to avert either a debt crisis or the emergency imposition of social democratic policies or both, we are going to need a conservative politics that is both substantive and populist, and that has intense appeal to self-described conservatives while being attractive to persuadables.. So that is something for Daniels (or Christie or Rubio, or whoever) to think about.