Obviously, the big winner in Tuesday's Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election was Republican Governor Scott Walker. But there was another, less-obvious winner in that election -- the Democratic Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.
Andrew Cuomo has also been struggling with the public employees unions in his home state and Walker's victory in Wisconsin is the sort of thing that is likely to be noticed in Albany. Cuomo has already been able to strike a deal that dramatically overhauled New York's public pension system and Cuomo and other Democratic governors (like California Governor Jerry Brown) will need to address the issue of public employee pensions and other related matters in the coming years. He'll need all the political capital he can muster and the message sent by Walker's victory will be a helpful talking point.
Cuomo isn't challenging public employees unions because he's a union buster, though that term can be used for many critics of such unions. Quite the contrary. He's making his challenge because of a basic problem that liberalism currently faces. The problem is that it is difficult to get broad public support for activist government if the public sees the government as sclerotic and inefficient and if they believe public employees are insulated from the economic stresses that most people face. This is particularly true with regard to pension systems, because traditional defined benefit pension systems (as opposed to defined contribution pension systems) are almost unheard of in the private sector while they remain commonplace in the public sector. One can debate whether or not this is a justifiable analysis on the part of the general public or the result of years of factually questionable right-wing attacks on the very legitimacy of the post-New Deal state (I would argue it's probably a bit of both), but it is a factor that progressives must face.
Also, the issue of public education reform is inextricably tied in with the issue of public employees unions. A large part of the present-day Democratic coalition is composed of college-educated white collar workers who see education as being key to their personal success and the success of their children. This part of the Democratic coalition tends to be more critical of the status quo in public education and this undermines the legitimacy of the public school teachers' unions that are seen (once again, fairly or not) as being supporters of that status quo. This dynamic played itself out in the 2010 mayoral election in Washington D.C., in which incumbent Adrian Fenty was defeated and this defeat was in part because of his support of public school reforms that were unpopular with the local public employees unions. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Fenty endorsed Walker's reforms in Wisconsin, at least in general principle.)
Walter Russell Mead is a writer who has spent a lot of time writing about these issues. He has described the current situation as a move away from what he calls the blue model of governance, a model that rose in response to the challenges of 20th century American society and was characterized by a centralized administrative state backed by large unions, particularly in the public sector. Regarding the way forward, he has written the following:
Just as we once saw competing Republican and Democratic versions of Progressive politics, so going forward we will see competing Republican and Democratic versions of post-blue politics. I can't predict how these partisan battles will come out, but it seems likely that through it all, the government will be remade and the bureaucratic administrative state that has dominated American life since the New Deal will transform. The big changes that come in American history may originate with or be primarily based in one political party, but because both parties are rooted in society neither can ultimately be unresponsive to the cultural and political shifts that affect the whole body politic.
Walker's victory is one aspect of these shifts and Cuomo's actions are another. Time will tell how this will all play itself out, but it is a mistake to think that these issues will go away. I suggest that it would be better for the Democratic Party to face the issue of public sector reform in the manner that Cuomo has, rather than play the defensive game it did in Wisconsin. That game ended in defeat and it's better to set the tone of debate rather than just react to it, particularly if one wants to support and preserve the legitimacy of a strong public sector and the long-term influence of organized labor. Cuomo is setting the tone in his home state and that's why I'm calling Tuesday's election results a win for Cuomo as well as Walker.