The Left has misread the postbailout populist sentiment all along, assuming public anger was directed at the rich. But American anger, I suspect, is directed not at some people who have money or success, but at those who profit through cronyism and their connections to power.
In other words, anti-bailout anger is not anger at the rich, but anger at those unfairly getting rich -- at the taxpayer's expense.
The Obama administration was startled in March 2009 when Americans exploded with anger at AIG executives -- living off the taxpayer dime -- who pocketed huge bonuses. There was plenty of anti-Wall Street feeling, and (to the confusion and consternation of liberals) it helped Republicans win many congressional races in 2010. Democrats apparently learned the wrong lessons.
Just after the election, public sentiment didn't favor the Democratic efforts to reinstate the old death tax -- which only affects the upper class. Class warfare talk didn't help the Left's efforts to increase taxes on the rich.
Even so, Obama's Democratic National Committee now thinks it has the winning hand in the labor scuffles that began in Wisconsin this month. In the view of the Left, the Democrats are standing with the working man against the greedy. The acrid Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that government unions provide a "counterweight to the political power of big money."
Hard facts utterly contradict Krugman's claim. First, unions are "Big Money." Of the top 10 sources of political contributions since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, five are unions. Of the top 20 sources of 2010 campaign funds, 10 are unions.
And the notion that Big Labor is cancelling out Big Business -- well, that's a Big Lie, too. The 10 industries that contributed the most during the 2010 elections -- from Wall Street to government unions -- all gave more to Democrats than to Republicans.
The top donor to House and Senate campaigns in the 2010 elections -- the Service Employees International Union -- is otherwise known as "Obama's Union." The company that spent the most on lobbying in 2010 -- General Electric -- is also known as "the for-profit arm of the Obama Administration."
In the retrograde liberal way of thinking, though, populism is about class warfare, in which the wealthy and corporations are the "special interests" arrayed against the poor working man. But in today's Wisconsin skirmish, the "working man" is implausibly the Wisconsin Education Association, the third-largest political donor in the state last election cycle.
Union-funded lawmakers take money from taxpayers and give it the government unions, who kick some of it back to union-funded lawmakers. It's not too different from banks or defense contractors donating to politicians who bail them out or give them no-bid contracts.
As long as Democrats think they're on the side of "the people" because the unions agree with them, they're politically lost.
What about the Republicans? What is their fight with the unions really about?
Is Krugman partly right? Are Republicans just trying to defund a Democratic piggy bank? Or are GOP politicians really trying to bust up immoral rackets?
If the latter, Beltway Republicans' next target should be subsidy sucklers and bailout bandits. Recent House votes striking at ethanol subsidies and the military-industrial complex are a good first step. Killing other green-energy rackets, export subsidies, and all forms of corporate welfare should be the goal, for both Congress and Republican presidential hopefuls.
Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008 were fueled by a populism sparked by Jack Abramoff and Wall Street bailouts. Republican wins in 2010 were powered by Tea Party populism angry about bailouts and Washington game playing.
The same anti-elite sentiment could persist in 2012. Democrats' nationalizing of Wisconsin shows they misunderstand it. Now it's Republicans' turn to show they can hear the voice of the people.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.