Michelle Rhee was a spectral presence at her party's convention in Charlotte but not the pariah you might have expected—though she did joke to a blogger for the Atlantic Monthly that she often has to explain that, yes, she's a Democrat.
Ms. Rhee was the break-the-crockery D.C. schools chancellor, whose mission came to an end when Mayor Adrian Fenty was booted by a local electorate straight out of the latest Romney gaffe. To put it bluntly, voters in D.C. sided with the teachers union that Ms. Rhee was fighting over the students she was trying to help.
A similar fight has lately embroiled another Democrat, Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago. Economists and pundits have long worried about an electoral imbalance between "makers" and "takers," and Mitt Romney certainly ignited a furor with his implied writing-off of the 47% of voters who get benefits and pay no income tax. But the basic calculation is misguided.
Voters are not the primary obstacle to reform. Forty-five-year-olds don't rise in revolt because somebody proposes raising the retirement age decades from now. One of the fastest growing federal liabilities is the Social Security disability system. Advocates for the disabled actually criticize the program for not doing more to get recipients back into jobs and off the dole.
Mancur Olson, the late and admired social thinker, described the lobbying incentives created by policies that concentrate benefits on the few and disperse the costs to the many. Recipients of federal entitlements aren't highly motivated to oppose the kind of long-term reforms actually required by our fiscal dilemma. Organized labor is.
Organized labor has been the dominant Inside-the-Beltway voice on entitlements for decades. Think we exaggerate?
When a flurry of bipartisan health-insurance proposals failed in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including a stillborn Kennedy-Nixon compromise and 1974's promising Long-Ribicoff bill, all were defeated because labor rejected anything that wasn't single-payer. (Ted Kennedy later called it his greatest legislative regret.)
When liberals like Rep. Jerrold Nadler proposed investing the 1990s Social Security surpluses in the stock market so the money wouldn't be squandered on unrelated federal spending, labor killed the idea.
When Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle and Rick Santorum voiced support for Social Security supplemental accounts, and when President Clinton said a bipartisan reform would be his No. 1 priority in 1999, labor snuffed the burgeoning consensus.
When Democrats gathered to nominate Al Gore in 2000, public-employee unions contributed a record number of delegates—at least 20% of the total. One of labor's biggest aims, according to a lobbyist for the union-backed Fund for Assuring an Independent Retirement, was throwing cold water on any Democratic enthusiasm for Social Security and Medicare reform.
When AFL-CIO President John Sweeney spoke in 2005 of the "biggest mobilization in the history of the labor movement," he meant labor's effort to defeat President Bush's Social Security reforms.
Think uninsured voters had any hand in designing ObamaCare? ObamaCare was largely designed by organized labor. Labor beat back attempts to curb the regressive tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance. Labor plumped for the incentives that will soon cause many employers to shift their health-care costs to taxpayers.
Think Medicare, Medicaid and VA beneficiaries are the ones storming the Hill when Congress debates spending for federal health programs? Storming the Hill is the Service Employees International Union, whose health-care union members benefit from every tax dollar shoveled at the medical-industrial complex.
Minimum wage? Extending the availability of disability payments to the unemployed or retired? Expanding the duration of unemployment benefits? Goading local and state politicians to pile up unfunded pension and health-care promises? Lobbying for federal guarantees of private pensions that, in failing industry after failing industry, incentivized firms to agree to promises they couldn't afford?
We don't dismiss the power of AARP, but organized labor dominates the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill. Organized labor has been the force, decade after decade, carefully tending the creation of the many liabilities and excesses that now threaten the Republic.
And Democrats know it: Michelle Rhee was not a pariah at the convention. She was invited to screen a pro-charter school movie, and was feted by prominent Democrats like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
We can hear the Obama ads now: "If you get Social Security, Romney doesn't want your vote. If you're on Medicare, Romney doesn't want your vote. If you collect unemployment . . ."
Yet a truth is buried in the Romney gaffe: After a long era of excess in America, leadership will mean taking some things away, no matter who wins the White House. But voters aren't the obstacle. At every step, the fight will be with the Democratic Party's organized labor constituency.