SB 5 Dead in O-Hi-O

This past week provided both challenges and successes electorally.  No ballot failure was quite as stinging as the passage of a referendum repealing the Republican union restriction law in Ohio.  Gov. John Kasich, and the Republicans controlling the legislature, passed a law this past spring that would have saved taxpayers billions of dollars.  It limited public union collective bargaining to wages and working conditions and banned it for benefits.  It ended binding arbitration and prohibited public union employees from going on strike.  It was strikingly like the Wisconsin law that passed except in one regard.  It included police and firefighters.  The Wisconsin law excluded these unions from these changes.  And thus, the public employee unions were handed a gift that they used to their advantage.  The Republicans handed them a fantastic argument.

If you give your opponent the better argument, you are destined to lose.

Intellectually, it would seem consistent for conservatives to argue all public unions should be treated alike.  If we put bargaining restrictions on teachers and workers at the DMV, it would seem only fair we also place those same limits to police and firefighters’ bargaining.  Right?  After all, whether you work for the fire department or the Department of Health, you are still getting your paycheck from the taxpayers.  While Wisconsin carved out exceptions for their protective service unions, it would appear Ohio was essentially ‘fairer’ by limiting bargaining over benefits to all public employee unions.

Ohio Republicans defined all public service union employees into this semantic category.  Everyone who receives a paycheck paid by the public and is a member of a public employee union is the same.  Meanwhile, in the eyes of Wisconsin Republicans, we have two different categories treated differently.  This would make it seem the argument in Ohio would be easier to make. But it wasn’t.  It was a disaster.  So why?

Charles Krauthammer argues this;

“On Tuesday, Ohio was the bellwether. Voters decisively voted down the Republicans’ newly enacted, Wisconsin-like rollback of public-sector workers’ benefits and bargaining rights. True, it took a $30 million union campaign that outspent the other side 3-to-1. True, repeal only returns labor relations to the status quo ante. And true, Ohio Republicans, unlike Wisconsin’s, made a huge tactical error by including police and firefighters in the rollback, opening themselves to a devastating they-saved-my-grandchild ad campaign. Nevertheless, the unions won. And they won big.”  StarTribune, November 11, 2011, ‘Mood of the electorate is . . .  thoughtful.’

Krauthammer believes it was a tactical error to include police and firefighters because it limited the coalition needed and gave the unions an emotional appeal meme to push.  Did including police and fire fighters really collapse the fiscally conservative coalition?

From Howard Wilkinson of Cincinnati.com, ‘Rallies, rhetoric mark the end of SB 5 fight,’ he observes;

“Public Policy Polling released a poll Monday showing that 59 percent of Ohioans plan to vote “no” on Issue 2, which would repeal the bill, while only 36 percent said they prefer keeping it in place.

A key to the 23 point margin is the fact that, according to the poll, Kasich and the Republicans in the legislature who passed the measure have failed to build rock-solid support for it among fellow Republicans – three of every 10 GOP voters said they will cast a “no” vote.”

Republicans, by including police and firefighters, essentially handed over their argument to the Democrats.  In Wisconsin, when Democrats argued conservatives wanted to ‘gut’ public unions, Republicans could argue they were doing no such thing.  They loved police and fire fighters.  It was the selfish teachers and bureaucrats that they wanted to restrict.  Conservatives had an out.  Meanwhile, in Ohio conservatives muzzled their supporters because it now sounded like a public vendetta against any public union employee, regardless.  It was powerful intellectually.

Sure, “We Are Ohio” used emotional, evocative appeals like a 78 year-old grandmother arguing to repeal the law.  From the Zanesville Times Recorder, ‘Grandmother caught in middle of union fight,’ October 14, 2011.  “Marlene Quinn’s great-granddaughter was saved from a house fire in November, and she told the story in a statewide television spot paid for by We Are Ohio, the union-backed coalition that’s fighting the law signed in March.  Quinn . . . appears before the camera. “If not for the firefighters, we wouldn’t have our Zoey today,” she tells viewers. “That’s why it’s so important to vote no on Issue 2.”

While the emotional appeal can be powerful, this wasn’t the tipping point.  Nor was the $30 million spent on these ads.  These emotional appeals can be countered when you have an argument.  People can counter emotional arguments with reason.  What they can’t argue against are better arguments.

Kasich and the Ohio Republicans further collapsed their case because of the implied premise in limiting collective bargaining to all public employees.  The implied premise to a restriction or limitation is there is too much of it.  In Wisconsin, they argued that public education employees and bureaucrats were getting more than their fair share.  But, protective service employees were not doing so.  This added another layer of argument to their case.  One group was taking advantage while another group was not.  It provided a necessary context.

In Ohio, the implied premise of police and fire fighters having an unfair allocation of resources, while risking their lives, wouldn’t fly.  Basically protective service employees argued, ‘what did I do wrong?’  This is a powerful argument that conservatives weren’t able to counter effectively.  Conservatives tried saying that all public employees must sacrifice, but that implied general guilt of all public sectors.  There was no group to compare to.  Using the taxpaying public as an example is a flabby argument because the circumstances are too diverse.  Conservatives had therefore thrown away another rhetorical argument.  Progressives could now pummel conservatives as vindictive and unfair.

Furthermore, the Ohio strategy began as a fight between public unions and the public but quickly spread to union workers in general.  By making police and street cleaners analogous, they opened up the category of ‘union’ to all.  Now, conservatives weren’t fighting greedy, piggish teachers’ unions or indifferent county recorder assistants.  The semantic category of ‘union’ became a catchall for any union worker.  Now they had a whole other kettle of fish to fry.  It wasn’t just state troopers or state purchasing agents in the crosshairs.  The Republicans had essentially singled out ‘unions’ in the fight and not specific groups of miscreants.  They lost the fight before it even began.  Republicans had generally made this a fight between unions and themselves.  The voters, loathe to get caught in the middle, sided with the unions.

For good reason.  It’s an idiotic argument to make.  You cannot couple unlike segments because of a linguistic anomaly like the word, ‘union’ and not expect enormous blowback.  You cannot create an artificial class to war against and then demand your side to support it without good arguments to make.  By making ‘unions’ the enemy, Kasich and the GOP doomed their rather modest attempt to get a handle on the fiscal situation.  It didn’t have to happen this way.

The argument is the thing, but we cannot support a cause, no matter how noble, if our words are taken from us.  The substance matters far more than you think.  We must think about truly taking aim at bad actors and not specific categories of people.  You can argue punishing a wrongdoer, but not an attribute.  They are very different things, and the voting public knows it.

Crossposted at Looktruenorth.com