Missouri legislators are proposing to enact a “right to work” law, which would prohibit closed union shops. This is an unusual situation where good policy is bad politics.
Don’t get me wrong. RTW would be good public policy, and very good for the Missouri economy, especially jobs. Economic growth in the U.S., where it exists, is primarily taking place in states with RTW laws, some of which border Missouri and attract our jobs. Aside from RTW’s economic benefits, relieving unwilling workers of the obligation to pay union dues to fund political causes that many of them oppose is the right thing to do. (Even in the Democrat landslide of 2008, over a third of all union members voted for Republican John McCain.)
Unfortunately, this is a case where good policy will predictably produce an electoral backlash that will have both short- and long-term negative implications for conservative policy. Enacting the law will require a vote of the people, and a vote on RTW in a general election would hand Democrats an opportunity to exploit it to ramp up turnout of otherwise unmotivated government-dependent folks who vote straight Democrat when they bother to vote. Democrats have a long history of using controversial ballot measures to manipulate turnout. Years ago, when Republicans were still somewhat competitive in the City of St. Louis, Democrats would repeatedly use meaningless ballot measures about reopening Homer G. Phillips Hospital to gin up the reliably Democratic African American vote. Last year, California Democrats used a ballot measure to legalize marijuana to get reliably Democrat but rarely voting stoners to the polls. The stoners made California a Democrat firewall against the 2010 Republican wave, saving Barbara Boxer’s senate seat, retaking the governorship and reelecting every vulnerable Democrat congressman, while the rest of the country was a sea of red. (And since the ballot measure itself lost, they can do it again!)
The relevant Missouri precedent is 1978, the last time a RTW proposal was on the Missouri ballot. 1978 was setting up to be a Republican year much like 2010. Both 1978 and 2010 were the GOP off-year rebounds following both big off-year losses four years prior (1974 and 2006) and subsequent losses of the White House (1976 and 2008), followed by voter remorse and outrage over failing leftist presidencies (Carter and Obama). But this remorse and outrage was short-circuited in Missouri, where the RTW issue woke up complacent union bosses. They registered thousands of new voters in union households, and their “Right to Work is a Ripoff” campaign was so popular and so pervasive, you still see old clunkers bearing that campaign’s 33-year-old “RIPOFF” bumper stickers.
A RTW supporter has tried to undermine these facts by destroying a straw man. In an op-ed piece in the liberal St. Louis Beacon, Bruce Hillis seized on careless hyperbole from aging former Sen. Kit Bond stating that the 1978 RTW proposal had “wiped out every single Republican from top to bottom.” That, of course, was clearly exaggeration, and Hillis pounced on it, pointing out that the GOP had in fact lost “only” five of its state house seats that year.
But the “straw man” of Bond’s hyperbole is not the relevant comparison. It makes more sense to compare Missouri’s 1978 results with what could and likely would have happened that year in the absence of RTW on the ballot.
Let’s first place Missouri in 1978 in proper context. The relatively small number of Republican lost seats was due to how few Republican seats were there to be lost, following the Democrat blowouts in post-Watergate 1974 and the victories of Democrats Jimmy Carter and “Walkin’ Joe” Teasdale in 1976 (when even Bond himself lost reelection). Seven of Missouri’s 10 seats in Congress were held by Democrats heading into 1978, including three by freshmen. Democrats then held a 22-12 majority in the Missouri senate and a 112-51 super-majority in the house.
The electoral disaster was the blown opportunity for Republican gains. With all of those pickup opportunities in an election that Republicans were sweeping everywhere else, RTW-impaired Missouri Republicans picked up no seats in congress (not even the vulnerable freshman Democrat in the 2nd District seat now safely held by Republican Todd Akin), no seats in the state senate and actually lost five more state house seats. In contrast, in the similar national political landscape in 2010, Missouri Republicans knocked off 34-year Congressman Ike Skelton (ironically one of the freshmen left unscathed in 1978) and gained 17 Missouri house seats, even though there were already 38 fewer Democrat house seats available to pick off.
That, Mr. Hillis, is the relevant comparison, and yes, 1978 was indeed a Republican electoral disaster. Unlike most of Missouri’s current legislators, who were too young to pay attention to politics (if even born) in 1978, I lived through that disaster. I recruited a legislative candidate in a swing district and spent so much time managing his campaign that it cost me my real job near the end of the campaign. The Democrat blowout wasted all of it.
More is at stake in 2012 than in 1978. It is absolutely essential that Missouri cast its 10 electoral votes to oust Barack Obama, and that Missouri maintain its GOP congressional delegation and its majorities in the General Assembly. RTW on the ballot will make those essential goals much more challenging. There will be another time, when a Republican governor can put a RTW proposal harmlessly on a primary ballot (just like Democratic Gov. Bob Holden deflected the impact of the “marriage definition” ballot measure in 2004). But if the legislature passes RTW in this session, Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon will put it on the general election ballot, to insure his own reelection and the broader success of his party.
Union backlash may be foreign to Mr. Hillis in the comfort of his idyllic conservative small town in Mexico, Missouri, but here among volatile swing voters in metropolitan St. Louis, it means a lot. I felt the pain in 1978, and I don’t want to experience it again. While RTW is the right thing to do, the right thing to do now is to wait. The 2012 election and its impact on the nation’s future are at stake.