There are rules of politics, and then there are laws. One of the latter, often attributed both to Texas football coach Darrell Royal but which dates to at least the 1920s, is just seven words: “Dance with the one that brung ya.” There are other ways of saying it of course: Don’t forget where you came from; don’t cross the base; don’t piss off the money people.
But alas, that is just what Obama did today, in the first of several moves to get out ahead of the new Republican majority in the House.
Today I’m proposing a two-year pay freeze for all civilian federal workers. This would save $2 billion over the rest of this fiscal year and $28 billion in cumulative savings over the next five years. And I want to be clear: This freeze does not apply to the men and women of our Armed Forces, who along with their families continue to bear enormous burdens with our nation at war.
The public employee unions the biggest institutional backers of the Democratic Party. They write huge checks, and they expect payback. Twelve of the top 21 institutional campaign donors tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics from 1989 to 2010 are labor unions, and almost all of that money goes to Democrats. Just a couple weeks ago, in a meeting behind closed doors with White House aides, Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State Local and Municipal Employees, had tried to throw down a gauntlet, declaring “We went out on a limb. . . You need to protect us.” [Update: The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union, wins the outrage statement game, calling the President's decision both "a superficial panic reaction" and "political scapegoating."]
Today, with Obama publically spurning their advances, they barely moderated their responses. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka released a tart statement: “Today’s announcement of a two-year pay freeze for federal workers is bad for the middle class, bad for the economy and bad for business. No one is served by our government participating in a ‘race to the bottom’ in wages.” The head of the National Federation of Federal Employees, William Dougan, declared himself “deeply disappointed.”
By taking this step, Obama is signaling that he is willing to take money from his own friends to deal with the budget deficit, and making clear gambit to win back the sympathies of political moderates who are sick of pay-to-play habits of Washington. It is also a challenge to Republicans: Are they willing to take anything away from their bases? Or, when it comes to addressing the federal deficit, will they continue to dance with the ones that brung them?