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Wisconsin Protest Shows D.C. Dems Power of Principle

Many progressive Democrats have long argued that the party fares best when Dems buck the common wisdom about conservatives having momentum and take a bold stance on critical issues, based on progressive principles. WaPo's E. J. Dionne, Jr. makes the case exceptionally well in his column today "What Wisconsin Democrats can teach Washington Democrats."

Washington Democrats, including President Obama, have allowed conservative Republicans to dominate the budget debate so far. As long as the argument is over who will cut more from federal spending, conservatives win. Voters may think the GOP is going too far, but when it comes to dollar amounts, they know Republicans will always cut more.

In Wisconsin, by contrast, 14 Democrats in the state Senate defined the political argument on their own terms - and they are winning it.

Dionne acknowledges that Wisconsin Republicans may win the round with their sneaky passage of Walker's attack against on public employee unions, which Walker will sign. But Walker has branded himself, in Dionne's words, as an "inflexible ideologue" and he and Wisconsin Republicans have damaged the image of their party nationwide with a pivotal constituency -- working class voters. Further, adds Dionne,

Here's the key to the Wisconsin battle: For the first time in a long time, blue-collar Republicans - once known as Reagan Democrats - have been encouraged to remember what they think is wrong with conservative ideology. Working-class voters, including many Republicans, want no part of Walker's war.

A nationwide Pew Research Center survey released last week, for example, showed Americans siding with the unions over Walker by a margin of 42 percent to 31 percent. Walker's 31 percent was well below the GOP's typical base vote because 17 percent of self-described Republicans picked the unions over their party's governor.

At my request, Pew broke the numbers down by education and income and, sure enough, Walker won support from fewer than half of Republicans in two overlapping groups: those with incomes under $50,000 and those who did not attend college. Walker's strongest support came from the wealthier and those with college educations, i.e., country club Republicans.

In November, Dionne notes, working-class whites gave Republican House candidates a 30-point lead over Dems. But many blue collar Democrats still have positive feelings about unions, which have helped provide their families with decent living standards. Walker's and the GOP's escalation their war against unions won't sit well with this constituency.

Dionne credits Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) with having the savvy to learn a potentially-powerful lesson from the Wisconsin Dems, and now Schumer wants to "reset the debate" over the federal budget battle in congress:

...As Schumer noted, the current battle, focused on "one tiny portion of the budget," evades the real causes of long-term budget deficits.

Schumer dared to put new revenue on the table - including some tax increases that are popular among the sorts of blue-collar voters who are turning against Walker. Schumer, for example, spoke of Obama's proposal to end subsidies for oil and gas companies and for higher taxes on "millionaires and billionaires." Yes, closing the deficit will require more revenue over the long run. But right now, the debate with the House isn't focusing on revenue at all.

Schumer, who spoke at the Center for American Progress, also suggested cuts to agriculture subsidies and in unnecessary defense programs. He proposed changes in Medicare and Medicaid incentives that would save money, including reform of how both programs pay for prescription drugs. The broad debate Schumer called for would be a big improvement on the current petty argument, which he rightly described as "quicksand."

As Dionne concludes, "Wisconsin Democrats have shown that the only way to win arguments is to take risks on behalf of what you believe. Are Washington Democrats prepared to learn this lesson? "