In all the ink that's been spilled over the confrontation between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his public employee unions, one point that's been under-emphasized is what a change this is from the recent model of Northern Republican governors.
George Pataki seems to have been more or less forgotten, but in 2004, after being elected three times as governor of New York, he had a prime-time slot at the Republican National Convention in New York, just before President George W. Bush. In 2002, the New York Observer reported on Mr. Pataki's support from organized labor: "like many other leaders of organized labor, he has been won over by Mr. Pataki's pro-union rhetoric and actions. Indeed, Pataki campaign officials say that union endorsements will continue rolling in this spring-including some surprising ones." A New York Sun editorial at the time noted, "Mostly, Mr. Pataki earned his union endorsements the old fashioned way — by buying them. In January, he signed over $1.8 billion to finance raises and pay for recruitment of unionized health workers, and he has also signed onto a number of expensive benefits for state workers." In 2002, even the New York City teachers union endorsed Mr. Pataki.
Less than a decade later, the route to Republican stardom seems not to be cultivating the unions, but clashing with them. The Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, whose YouTube confrontations with unionized teachers have made him famous, is the subject of a love poem in the Weekly Standard, and is no. 2 of 30 candidates in a pretty interesting online Tea Party presidential poll for 2012. Mr. Walker, who hardly anyone outside Wisconsin had heard of a month ago, is being touted by William Kristol as a Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012, and by Amity Shlaes as a future president.
What's changed? Partly it's the sheer arithmetic. Buying the political backing of public employee unions with raises and benefits can only go on for so long; eventually, the state runs out of taxpayer money. Not only is such a buy-them-off strategy not feasible when the money just isn't there, but after a while, the private-sector taxpayers start to resent it. As the Republican governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, put it in remarks reported here about a year ago, voters start to say, "The teacher next door I just figured out makes a lot more than I do but doesn't work all year."
And while I have no reason to doubt that either Mr. Christie or Mr. Walker is motivated by anything other than the best interest of his state, if one wanted to look at the sheer personal political dynamics of the situation, one can understand some of the differences there, too. Mr. Pataki in 2002 had a Republican president with six more years to go, assuming re-election. So he was more focused on winning another four years in New York. And anyway, at the national level, budget cutters weren't much in demand — the federal budget was roughly in surplus, or at least it had been quite recently.
These days, it's a different situation. The Republican fields for 2012 and 2016 are both pretty much wide open. The big skill in demand at the national level is for someone who can take on powerfully entrenched interests to trim the size of government and create the conditions for private sector economic growth. So now the way to get noticed and win the approval of the conservative journalists, donors, consultants, and activists who can help a politician get promoted to president from governor isn't by winning the endorsement of public sector unions, but by getting into big fights with them.