In the wake of organized labor's defeat in Wisconsin last Tuesday, the role of government and the clout of public sector unions are emerging as major issues in the presidential campaign.
President Obama and GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney both found themselves over the weekend explaining comments they made involving the public sector.
Obama's comment on Friday that the “private sector is doing fine,” but that Congress should send more federal dollars to states and localities prompted a barrage of GOP reaction that the president was out of touch.
Meanwhile, labor unions attacked Romney for what one called his disdainful attitude toward the middle class when the former Massachusetts governor said of the president, “He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
Republican Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said on Sunday that voters this fall will decide on this “fundamental disagreement” whether government can or should create jobs or if that is best left up to the private sector. However, Daniels cautioned against reading too much into last Tuesday's election results in Wisconsin in which Governor Scott Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to retain his job, becoming the first governor to survive a recall.
“It would be, I think, a huge mistake for Republicans to misread Wisconsin as some kind of great harbinger,” Daniels told “Fox News Sunday.”
“I don't see it that way at all,” he said. “I mean, there was clearly a threat of `enough already' vote there that said it is an abuse of the process with all of the recalls.”
Walker took on public-sector unions just as Daniels did in his own state. But organized labor lost not just in Wisconsin last Tuesday, but also in California where voters in San Diego and San Jose backed ballot measures curtailing pensions for city workers.
Daniels said the message from Tuesday's election is that “voters are seeing the fundamental unfairness of government becoming its own special interest group, sitting on both sides of the table,” he said, suggesting that public sector unions should go. "I think, really, government works better without them,” Daniels said when asked whether public-worker unions should even exist.
In the same broadcast, AFL-CIO Deputy Chief of Staff Thea Lee said the real issue should be how the private sector can provide better retirement benefits for private sector workers, not how the public sector can offer fewer benefits. “I think we need to figure out how do we make sure that everybody in America has a decent pension. This is a wealthy country.”
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said Romney's proposal just didn't add up to him. “When he said that we need to have less firemen, less police and less teachers, and that we ought to invest in people -- I don't understand that math at all … We have got to find a way to lift all citizens, not just a few. Not a 1 percent, not just the wealthy few.”