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The Strategy Behind the Budget Battles


Republican responses to budget challenges nationally and in Wisconsin come together as part of a long-standing strategy to destroy institutions that allegedly sustain the American left. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Republicans in the state legislature have targeted teachers’ unions.

Republicans budget-cutters in Congress have targeted Planned Parenthood, the Public Broadcasting Corporation, and the Legal Services Corporation, among other groups. Their budget inflicts little or no pain on Republican-leaning organizations such as the agribusinesses that garner most farm payments or the oil companies that receive billions in special tax subsidies.

The GOP first elaborated this strategy in a 1999 memo on priorities for the new millennium that I discovered in the papers of former Republican Representative Dick Armey of Texas. A copy of the memo can be found in the photo essay of my book, White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.

The memo outlined strategies for “defunding the left” by eliminating “sources of hard currency for the Democratic Party” following President Ronald Reagan’s “model for cutting off the flow of hard currency to the Soviet Union.” To weaken the unions, Republicans would promote free trade and repeal the Davis Bacon Act that required prevailing wages on federally funded or assisted projects. The party would strive to restrict the use of compulsory union dues for political purposes. It would push for liability limitations on lawsuits to stanch the flow of funds to liberal groups and political candidates from trial lawyers. The GOP would weaken the National Education Association and teachers’ unions by promoting “school choice.” It would work to abolish the Legal Services Corporation and the Public Broadcasting System and kill incentives for tax-deductible donations to “liberal foundations” by repealing estate taxes.

In Wisconsin, the Republicans are continuing the anti-union component of the memo’s strategy. With union membership in the private workforce diminished to about 7 percent, public sector unions have become vital sources of funds, votes, and volunteers for Democrats. About 36 percent of public employees are currently union members, including most teachers.

In the name of austerity, Governor Walker and his allies have selectively sought to strip the states’ liberal teachers’ unions of collective bargaining rights. They have proposed no such death sentence for more conservative police and firefighters’ unions. In 2010, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, teachers’ unions in Wisconsin contributed $389,000 to state-level campaigns, nearly all of it to Democrats.

The strategy to undermine teachers’ unions also has spread beyond Michigan to other Republican-controlled states such as Indiana and Ohio. However, a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll showing that 61% would oppose a law in their state similar to the proposal in Wisconsin, whereas only 33% would favor such a law may deter other Republicans from following Walker’s lead.

In the House of Representatives, Republicans are likewise weakening what they view as left-leaning institutions. The proposed House budget ends funding for public broadcasting, which Republicans say provides a forum for liberal views. The budget eliminates funding to Planned Parenthood, a mainstay of the liberal pro-choice movement. Federal law already prohibits funding for abortion. The proposed cuts will instead eradicate contraceptive services, cancer and HIV screening, and health counseling. The budget slashes funding by 17 percent for the Legal Services Corporation, which represents poor people and it eliminates funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered a source of leftwing views on global warming.

As in Wisconsin, these Republican initiatives in Washington have little to do with deficit reduction. Even if the Senate and President Obama accepted all $61 billion in proposed Republican cutbacks, the $1.6 billion deficit would shrink by less than 4 percent. As the President’s Bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform made clear, real deficit reduction means seriously addressing entitlement programs, the defense budget, all farm payments, and the federal tax code.

In attempting to weaken the foundations of American liberalism, Republicans may have reached too far. Since their successful demonstrations in the battle for Florida after the 2000 election, conservatives have dominated the streets. Now, for the first time in recent memory, liberal protesters have taken to the streets in large numbers, portending perhaps the rise of the grassroots leftwing base that Obama promised, but failed to deliver thus far.

ALLAN J. LICHTMAN, a professor of history at American University, is the author of White Protestant Nation.

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