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Is the Tea Party Pooped? It Must Keep Making Its Case

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Has the wind gone out of the sails of the smaller government movement? Is the tea party movement going through a hangover?

You can find some evidence for these propositions. In Washington, Democrats like former National Chairman Howard Dean look forward gleefully to a government shutdown, and Sen. Charles Schumer thinks he can drive a wedge between Speaker John Boehner and "extremist" tea partiers.

And in state capitals some new Republican governors are getting hostile receptions to their plans for cutting spending and curtailing the power of public employee unions.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich has only 30 percent approval, according to a Quinnipiac poll. Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, easily elected last November, has negative ratings as well.

And in the state that has made more headlines than any other this year, Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker is facing some headwinds. He did get the Republican legislature to pass limits on the bargaining powers of state employee unions. And union dues aren't going to be deducted from public employees' next paychecks.

But the Democratic state senators' tactic of leaving the state and the often violent protests at the state Capitol have mobilized public employee unions and their supporters.

A Polling Company poll conducted for Independent Women's Voice showed 53 percent of voters with unfavorable feelings toward Walker and only 46 percent favorable. By a similar margin voters sided with the public employee unions over the governor in the recent controversy.

It should be noted that this poll has a small sample and a larger share of voters in union households (38 percent) than in the 2008 and 2010 Wisconsin exit polls (26 percent). And on issues of this kind, question wording can make a big difference in responses.

Next Tuesday, voters will have their say in an election for state Supreme Court. Incumbent Republican David Prosser is being challenged by Democrat Jo Anne Kloppenberg, who is giving strong hints that she'll uphold a dubious ruling by a lower court that the legislature acted illegally in limiting public employee unions' powers. A Prosser defeat would give Democrats a 4-3 edge on the court.

Off-year elections tend to have low turnout, and the public employee unions are working hard to get their voters out. It's unclear whether tea partiers and others whose enthusiasm and energy transformed Wisconsin from a 56-42 percent Obama state in 2008 to a 52-46 percent Walker state in 2010 will be similarly energized.

In addition, both parties have threatened to recall at least some of the other side's state senators. Recall petitions are being circulated and require relatively few signatures.

The IWV poll says that voters would oppose recalling Democratic state senators by 60 percent to 38 percent but oppose recalling Republicans by only 52 percent to 43 percent.

There's an assumption by many Republicans, seemingly shared by Walker, that voters settled these issues definitively in the November elections. But the IWV poll suggests that voters are not necessarily well informed and have been swayed by those who frame the issue as collective bargaining "rights."

Respondents become more favorable to Walker's position when informed that public employees are paid 45 percent more than private sector union members and that union dues have been automatically deducted and go to support candidates workers may not favor.

In New Jersey, a more Democratic state than Wisconsin, Gov. Chris Christie has won majority support in his struggles with public employee unions by making his case repeatedly, with facts and figures, and with a forcefulness that has made his town hall appearances a YouTube hit.

Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, both elected in 2009, have won public acceptance of major spending cuts by making the alternatives and the facts clear.

Republicans in Wisconsin and other states, and Republican leaders in Washington, need to do the same. Given their druthers, voters oppose tax increases and spending cuts. But they're responsive to the message that in these hard economic times it's not possible to have all good things.

They have seen that vast spending increases haven't generated jobs, and they understand that tax increases can choke a sputtering economic recovery. Given the facts, they understand that public employee unions inflate spending, reduce accountability and operate as a mechanism for the involuntary transfer of taxpayer money to one political party.

The press won't make that case. Republicans and tea partiers need to do it themselves.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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