In praise of leaders with backbone
Who put the hot sauce in the Republican governors' oatmeal? And where do we get more of it?
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker is winning fans and making waves — as good leaders tend to do — by standing up to public-employee unions and forcing voters to confront unpleasant realities. They include the fact that the Badger State can't close a $3.6 billion budget shortfall. Rather than ignore the problem, Walker actually wants to fix it by making state workers pay more for benefits and eliminating most collective bargaining power of public-employee unions.
Paying more is an option, but giving up collective bargaining is a nonstarter with both workers and their unions. So they've gone to the mattresses. In recent days, thousands of angry Wisconsinites have gathered at the state capitol to protest Walker's proposal.
Many Americans seem supportive of collective bargaining. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, 61 percent oppose the idea of taking this tool away from public-employee unions; only 33 percent would favor such a law.
Yet, judging from the chatter in columns, blogs and talk radio, that doesn't necessarily translate into support for public-employee unions. There is a weariness, even among liberal commentators, with the fat benefits these workers enjoy while people in the private sector have to make sacrifices.
One reason could be that more Americans are figuring out that there is a difference between private- and public-sector unions. In the private sector, what keeps everyone honest is that companies can only be pushed so far or they'll go bankrupt. If this happens, then everyone loses. In the public sector, cities and states don't go bankrupt all that easily and so unions can push and push, and take and take, until a system becomes insolvent.
There is a lot in Wisconsin to keep us interested in this drama for weeks to come. Most Americans seem to understand that what happens there will spread around the country and that, in fact, it already has. Lawmakers in other states are considering similar laws to the one that Walker proposed.
The list includes New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie has zeroed in on the issues of entitlement spending and fiscal responsibility. Christie has a blunt yet important message for members of both parties: It's time to grow up.
Even before the Battle of Wisconsin, Christie spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., where he warned that the country is "teetering on the edge of disaster" unless the government's fiscal crisis is confronted head-on.
"It's put-up or shut-up time," Christie told the audience.
The governor — who obviously likes a good fight — has already clashed with teachers unions over accountability, and with state lawmakers over spending cuts. Now Christie has set his sights on an issue that makes the pension debacle seem like small change: Social Security. The governor believes that one way to keep America's favorite entitlement program solvent is to raise the retirement age.
Currently, most workers can now retire at 65. But, for the past several years, reformers have suggested moving the age to 70 to help ease the strain on the program. That may be necessary but it is certainly not popular with most voters. They like the system the way it is.
This explains why most politicians, who are eager to be adored, would rather talk about any other subject.
After he grabbed hold of the third rail and suggested raising the retirement age, Christie joked: "I just said it! And I'm still standing here. I did not vaporize."
No, he didn't. And the country should be grateful for that. We need more leaders like Christie — and Walker. In politics, the norm is spineless politicians who avoid tough subjects that could jeopardize their jobs by stirring the masses.
Christie understands the game, and he's not playing.
"The old playbook says lie, deceive, obfuscate, make it to the next election," he said. "Leadership today in America has to be about doing the big things and being courageous. That's what it has to be about."
Bravo. It's time for elected officials to do the big things and be courageous. Or else, we will replace them.
© 2011, The Washington Post Writers Group
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