The most important lessons for the Republican party aren't coming from any of the retired politicians doing their speaking tours right now. They come from two sitting governors, Governor Christie of New Jersey and Governor Brewer of Arizona. And what they're doing is very simple. They're confronting the problem.
But Christie made the rational calculation that he had nothing to lose by taking on the unions, because they would reliably come out against him during reelection anyway. And if he didn't take them on, he would have to shoulder the blame for a budget crisis that he had nothing to do with. So while neighboring New York's state government was trying to tiptoe around a complete shutdown over budget talks, New Jersey's new governor took the initiative and picked a fight with the unions, turning them into the villains in the budget crisis.
Unlike Schwarzenegger who had tried the same thing in California a few years too early before buckling under the response in response to his failed referendums, Christie benefited from better timing and from voters being able to directly connect the teacher's union to property tax hikes over school budgets. It was a scenario that gave people who were already cutting back a chance to directly stand up to tax hikes in local elections. And while teacher's unions are almost as good at wrapping themselves in a self-righteous cloak, as the California nurses union was, their own stunts ended up backfiring on them.
Christie's campaign served to put a major political foe on the defensive and shifted the perception of blame for the state's economic troubles, boosting his own popularity, protecting his reelection campaign and giving him a measure of control and power over an out of control situation.
What Christie did though is resonating beyond New Jersey, as Republicans and even Democrats, quickly rushed to jump on the anti-public sector union bandwagon, even when they had been taking money from those same unions not so long ago. That's because a winning strategy in one state has implications for other states. At a time when incumbents are terrified of public outrage, and scrambling for a way to avoid being blamed for the economic disaster all around them, a good tactic is a good tactic.
Similarly in Arizona, Governor Brewer zeroed in on the problem and tackled it. Like so many other states, Arizona was being bled by the cost of illegal immigration. Brewer directly tackled the illegal alien issue, and by doing so earned the ire of liberals and the Obama White House, but boosted her own popularity inside the state. Which is what really matters.
Like Christie, Brewer's presence was a bit of a fluke. Christie was an unlikely winner. And Brewer hadn't even won an election. But what looked like a disadvantage, was actually an advantage. Because it meant both of them had less to lose, than governors with more stable bases. And it made them hungrier to go on the offensive and stabilize their political prospects. Christie has already said that he's happy to rule as a one term governor, but his actions so far are giving him the best shot at reelection, which would not be the case if he had just overseen the usual compromises between unions and tax hikes that most other governors are doing. Similarly Brewer's polling has improved, even as so much of the left coast has lost its mind over her actions.
Brewer confronted a problem that happened to be part of the liberal base. She touched the "untouchable", a potential electorate that Democrats had been hoping to harness for the future. Through that course of action, she protected her own political fortunes and those of her party as well. And she enlisted populist forces in an issue that frustrated many Arizonans and Americans in general, but that most mainstream politicians had declared to be off limits. And while Arizona is being blasted by the political establishment, it has the support of locals and the country as a whole for doing a job that no one else seems to want to do.
The backlash against Brewer is all the more intense, because Arizona managed to skip ahead and tangle Obama's own policy agenda, forcing the White House into a confused tail spin, as it tries to push legalization and border security at the same time. Liberals are rushing to try and bring together the planned coalition of corporations and minority groups to try and sell America on their legalization program. But they've already been left behind and playing catch up on an issue that they've already lost among the people.
But for all the lost convention business, Arizona gains more from having to spend less money on jails and social services, than it does from a few bureaucrats showing up to use their hotel rooms. That's because it costs tens of thousands to keep a prisoner in jail for a year, and the occasional convention isn't going to bring in that kind of money. And that lesson too is not lost outside Arizona.
Other border states are joining in on the illegal immigration issue, and swing states like Ohio are polling in support of Arizona, and for a crackdown on illegal immigration in their own state. Tennessee has its own version of the law now. Bad news for Democrats in a state roughly split between Democratic and Republican congressmen.
Going forward, this means a chance for Republicans to increasingly take back the legislative momentum at the state level. And to do so by personalizing their campaigns, placing the blame on the Democratic base, and pushing them to the wall. It's the same thing that the Democrats did to Republicans in 08. It's what they're still trying to do now, by blaming everything from BP to Wall Street on the GOP.
The bottom line is that you can't win without confronting the problem. All you can do is inherit someone else's failure. A real victory requires a mandate for change, and that means tackling issues, rather than trying to be the more moderate version of the problem. For too long Republicans have been satisfied to be the more moderate version of the Democrats. And not only have they not picked up a moderate image, but they've lost the cultural war by being depicted as unreasonable extremists who want to oppress and destroy. That can only change by pushing forward, instead of pulling back.
You win by confronting the problem, and by defining your opponents as the problem. Democrats did that successfully in 2008. Now Republicans have their chance to return the favor.