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Jewish World Review Nov. 14, 2005 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan 5766

John H. Fund

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And the Winners Are ... | Everyone agrees that Democrats did well and Republicans were chastened in last week's elections. But beyond that there were clear winners and losers. A clear loser was President Bush, who only two days after the election saw rebellious moderate Republicans in both the House and Senate shelve  —  at least temporarily  —  his budget and tax proposals. But who were the winners? Let's focus on three clear ones: Virginia's Gov. Mark Warner, Arizona's Sen. John McCain and California's government employee unions.

Mr. Warner has suddenly become the Democratic Party's rock star. He is touted as a presidential candidate by members of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who fear Sen. Hillary Clinton may be too polarizing.

Mr. Warner's sales pitch  —  which he will carry to New Hampshire this Thursday for a "conversation with voters"  —  will be that he has picked the lock on GOP dominance in the South. In 2001, he impressed party insiders by courting Nascar enthusiasts and gun owners and winning in a state that hasn't gone Democratic for president since 1964. In office, he focused on issues such as education and traffic congestion and built enough popular support to persuade a GOP Legislature to raise taxes. Then, barred from seeking a second term, Mr. Warner successfully helped Tim Kaine, his lieutenant governor, score a decisive six-point victory to succeed him in the governor's mansion.

Although he was born in Indiana and spent much of his childhood in Connecticut, Mr. Warner has become an effective proponent of the need for Democrats to reach out to voters in Southern states. He refuses to join other Democrats in fighting a "blame game" over the Iraq war. "The Democratic Party ought to get over refighting how we got into the war and, again, continue to press the president on what he hopes to do in terms of how we will finish the job," he told CBS News yesterday.

His success in Virginia has some party activists already sold. "I've never met the guy, but he ought to be our nominee in '08," Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, told Knight Ridder. "If Democrats around the country don't wake up and take notice, we're going to go down the same road we went down in '04."

Mr. Warner may still be a long-shot for the Democratic nomination  —  only 1% of Democrats in an October Marist poll picked him as their favorite  —  but he is clearly the new frontrunner among "anybody but Hillary" Democrats. Even if he stumbles in the primaries, don't be surprised if the New York senator woos him to join her ticket in hopes of snagging Virginia for the Democratic column.

If Mr. Warner is basking in newfound attention in his party, Mr. McCain is getting new respect from Republicans as President Bush's approval numbers continue to weaken. Mr. McCain's basic message is that if Republicans still face a hostile political environment in 2008, they must find a candidate who transcends partisanship. He says the public is fed up with "fight gang" politics and wants bipartisan solutions, such as the agreement that 14 senators, including Mr. McCain, made last May not to filibuster judicial nominees except in "extraordinary circumstances."

The senator says his approach  —  which includes co-sponsoring global warming legislation with Sen. Joe Lieberman and pushing for campaign finance reform  —  is a political winner. He points to his own approval ratings in Arizona, where, despite grousing from many conservatives, nearly two-thirds of Republicans like the job he's doing. He also sports an approval rating of nearly 50% among Democrats and over 60% among independents.

But such numbers may count for little in the hothouse world of Republican primary politics, which is dominated by activists. "McCain has one big problem in winning the nomination," political handicapper Charlie Cook told me. "Conservatives hate him for everything from voting against tax cuts to opposing English-only laws."

Mr. McCain has nonetheless confounded his critics by managing to make himself increasingly relevant in the U.S. Senate. "Unlike John Kerry, who also wants to run for the White House again, McCain is in the middle of the debate on every major issue," says one key GOP Senate staffer. "He is always on TV and has scored points with conservatives for asking for cancellation of the new prescription drug benefit." He is also continuing to churn out books. Later his month, Mr. McCain visits the key primary state of South Carolina to sign his latest book, "Character Is Destiny." Mr. McCain clearly thinks another run at the White House is part of his destiny.

It seems eons ago that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stood astride California politics. Only last February he had a 65% approval rating and seemed likely to roll over his state's Democratic Legislature by calling a special election to implement his reform agenda through the initiative process. But he didn't count on the clout  —  and cash  —  of the state's public employee unions, which represent 55% of the government workers in the Golden State, significantly more than the 37% national figure.

The unions quickly decided to make a maximum effort to defeat the governor. They initially claimed that spending $80 million on a special election was a waste of taxpayers' money, and then proceeded to spend $150 million of their workers' dues to make certain it would be. Their main target was Proposition 75, which would have required unions to get written permission from their members before funneling their dues into political causes. Last week they defeated all four of the governor's ballot measures with "no" votes ranging from 53% to 62%.

The governor was slow to recognize the danger of the union onslaught, which portrayed him as a tool of both corporate interests and President Bush. By September he had belatedly woken up. "What is derailing California right now, and has been for years, it's the public employee unions," Mr. Schwarzenegger told reporters. "They have collected so much money that they have control over the Legislature."

Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Insitute says that public-sector unions are now at the center of a new left-wing coalition of "tax eaters," which consist of everyone whose livelihood depends in large part upon government regulation, employment or entitlements. AFSCME, one of the more powerful public-sector unions, has grown from only 100,000 members in 1955 to over 1.4 million today. This year it helped vault Antonio Villaraigosa, a former organizer for a teachers union, into the office of Los Angeles mayor. Another union organizer, Fabian Nunez, is the new speaker of the California Assembly.

Some liberals are concerned that the union desire for ever greater political control is now threatening to strangle common-sense reforms that are in the best interests of the electorate as a whole. The liberal Los Angeles Times endorsed Proposition 75, the union-dues initiative, saying that "when public employee unions wield the type of influence they do now in California, too much governing becomes an exercise in self-dealing."

But the entire Democratic Party apparatus swung behind the effort against Proposition 75 and other measures, which would have limited teacher tenure, reformed the budget process, and ended the gerrymandering of political districts. "Some liberals in California are in danger of becoming Paleolithic liberals who will stick with the interest groups come hell or high water," laments Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Newsweek. "It's kind of pathetic on the part of some liberals that they can't accept a good idea if it's put forward by a moderate Republican."

For now, the unions are flush with victory and their success in humbling Mr. Schwarzenegger. But their victory may be a Pyrrhic one if it accelerates the flight of California private-sector jobs and capital to other states, taking the source of much-needed government revenue at the same time. Even the most powerful economic engines can rust. Take New York City, which today has the same population it did two generations ago but a total of 30% more government workers. During the same period, the number of Fortune 500 headquarters in New York City has dwindled to 30 from 140. When the unions win too much political clout, the overall economy inevitably suffers.

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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©2001, John H. Fund