06/09/2012 11:16 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2012

Love Them and Leave Them

"If you can't drink their booze, take their money, sleep with their women, and then vote against them, you don't belong in politics."
Former Speaker of the California Assembly Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh

The Democratic Party, the beneficiary of 40 years of unionized public employee support, will reassess its relationship with public service unions. Maximizing public employee wages and benefits has little to do with the founding and sustaining principles of the Party -- promoting equality of opportunity, combating discrimination and assuring a safety net for those in need. Public sector workers are neither victims of discrimination; unfairly exploited, nor easily classified as disadvantaged. The relationship between the Party and the unions is utilitarian not philosophical. The unions provide campaign funds, ground troops and voters to advance the interests of Democratic political candidates. In exchange, the Party sponsors and promotes union wages, benefits, work rules and job security. While highly effective electoral strategy for Democratic office seekers in the past, it does not appear the voting public is willing to continue to foot the bills. Campaign contributions are only a means to an end; when the contributors become a liability, politicians reboot and go where the votes are.

Public opinion regarding public service employees is reaching a tipping point. The recent economic downturn placed an uncomfortable spotlight on the disparity between their income, benefits and protections, and those available to the average working American. At a time of increased national austerity, the unions have not helped their cause by actively fighting programs to increase government efficiency, championing opportunities further to expand government (and union membership), and funding public initiatives to promote increases in state and local taxes. From a political standpoint, continuing to champion increases in the income of public employees or defending their accumulated legacy costs will be increasingly problematic for new office seekers.

If all politics is local, given the abject state of municipal finances across America, what politician wants to defend the premise that local public service providers should continue to receive salaries and benefits and job security higher and in many cases significantly higher than their clients? What political party will undertake to convince voters that it is in their interest to honor the legacy commitments of past alliances between union leaders and self-interested office holders? How much longer will lower income and middle class parents tolerate the active subordination of their children's interests to those of teachers unions? Faced with the prospect of further cutting services or cutting public servant benefits, or eliminating the obstacles to public education reform in favor of better education opportunities for their children, is it easy to predict what people will choose?

As voter sentiments against public employee unions intensifies, is there any doubt that the politicians of both parties will soon follow? Last week in heavily Democratic California, against strong union opposition, voters by two to one margins approved initiatives lowering pensions for public service employees in the cities of San Diego and San Jose. In Chicago and New York, the Democratic mayor and governor respectively are pushing ahead with reforms vigorously opposed by public sector unions. In last week's high profile election, Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin became the first governor in history to beat a recall vote -- one initiated directly by public service unions to overturn limits on their benefits and bargaining rights.

Analysts miss the point when they argue that Walker succeeded because his supporters significantly outspent the opposition. Both political parties have demonstrated an equal capacity to raise campaign money for individuals and causes to which they are fully committed. In Wisconsin, one of the country's most progressive states, the local and national financial support for the interests of public employees simply wasn't forthcoming. Neither the Democratic president nor national party was willing to put themselves on the line to support the public sector unions in Wisconsin, San Diego or San Jose. Neither will they oppose the measures advanced in Chicago and New York State.

To survive and thrive, political parties change and adapt. The public service unions and the Democratic Party had a very good run together, but the burden of the legacy costs resulting from that collaboration has become too great, exceeding the potential future political benefits for office seekers. The Democratic Party will adjust to changed circumstances, forming new alliances while public service unions will be politically orphaned, declining measurably like their private sector counterparts. As the late, great Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill used to say, "Politics ain't beanbag."