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DINE: GOP should look for the union label
Question of the Day
With little left to say that hasn’t been said about this fall’s elections, let’s look ahead to the contest everyone will be talking about in six weeks: the 2012 presidential contest.
A related topic likely to get short shrift from the media and the consultants involves union members and Republican candidates. That’s too bad, because it’s important.
Now, it’s true that unions inevitably support a Democrat for president. But members’ votes are more complex. More than a quarter of rank-and-filers are Republicans; in some unions, the number tops 40 percent. Then there are the Reagan Democrats/NASCAR dads/blue-collar conservatives who helped elect Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. And the continuing high unemployment rate and other concerns might put even some other Democratic members’ votes in play.
In recent national elections, one-quarter of all voters have come from union households. Among this group, three-quarters have chosen the union-endorsed candidate. This means that the Republican starts at a distinct disadvantage, having to win 58 percent of the rest of the vote just to pull even, while the union-endorsed candidate needs only 42 percent of the remainder to secure half of the electorate.
So the more a Republican presidential candidate cuts into the union vote, the easier his overall task is.
With that in mind, here, in descending order, is a glance at some prospective GOP candidates and how they’re perceived by union folks.
Mike Huckabee: Much good will here. Though the media explained his strong showing in the 2008 primaries by his religious appeal, this was just one factor. Mr. Huckabee is a rare Republican who speaks the language of the working people, not of corporate America (which is why he’s distrusted by Wall Street and the GOP establishment), while welcoming union support (including last time from teachers and machinists). With him, working-class social conservatives don’t have to sacrifice their economic interests.
Sarah Palin: Ridiculed by many union folks, revered by others; not much different from among the population as a whole. It’s less her views than questions about her qualifications that turn off some, but others admire her independence and moxie. Being married to a card-carrying union member doesn’t hurt her standing, but being vague about job creation does.
Tim Pawlenty: Seen by some as a fiscal conservative who relates to average people. A former labor lawyer (for management), he’s not particularly friendly to labor. He displays concern about what he calls “Sam's Club” people and their struggles, while warning the GOP not to be the party of the “country club.” But he did himself no favor by recently opposing federal aid to states to prevent teacher layoffs.
Ron Paul: It has not received much ink or airtime, but Mr. Paul’s views on labor — quixotic, naturally — would intrigue union members. Mr. Paul strongly supports the right to organize and has co-sponsored a bill to allow air traffic controllers to form a union. At the same time, he criticizes the concept of a minimum wage and opposes expanded unemployment benefits.
Mike Pence: Married to a schoolteacher but has little appeal to union members.
Haley Barbour: Has a low profile among union people, though he does advocate a focus on economic issues.
Mitt Romney: Widely viewed as a champion of the wealthy and business executives. Although he is grudgingly respected for his knowledge of economics, his opinions are strongly opposed.
Mitch Daniels: Aggressively took on Indiana’s public employees; no love lost here.
Newt Gingrich: Fuggedaboutit.
Jim DeMint: Seen as a bomb thrower; talks frequently of the need to confront “union bosses.” He might gain an audience if he occasionally mentioned the problems wrought by “corporate bosses.” Actually not, after he put a hold on a qualified presidential nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration after the attempted Christmas airplane bombing. His aim: to prevent TSA workers from forming a union.
Footnote:Tom Ridge isn’t running, his views too moderate for GOP primaries. Democrats should consider themselves fortunate. Mr. Ridge would roil the union waters for them. He’s widely respected for his pro-labor stance and for his personal story — as a man who went from public housing to Harvard (paying tuition by working construction); from combat service in Vietnam to serving as a common-sense congressman and governor. He’s particularly popular among union folks in the industrial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
• Philip M. Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.
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