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Scott Walker goes after federal public unions

Gov. Scott Walker speaks in Eureka, Illinois. In dire need of a spark to rescue his limping presidential campaign, Walker is turning to the issue that first thrust him into the national spotlight four years ago, fighting unions. 

The list of America’s problems is long, with gridlock in government, excessive debt, an outdated immigration system, climate change, terrorism, a shaky world economy, stagnant wages, a convoluted tax code, rising health care costs and struggling students at the top.

The threat from federal employee unions barely even registers, despite Gov. Scott Walker’s tough talk this week about further limiting their powers.

That’s because most federal employees already are forbidden from collectively bargaining for higher pay and benefits.

So it’s hard to blame the U.S. government’s budget deficit, for example, on federal worker wages. If the politicians are spending too much on workers, they can simply spend less, without a maze of union restrictions to stop them.

Hoping to revive his flagging presidential campaign, Walker essentially proposed taking his Act 10 reforms from Wisconsin to the White House this week. Besides banning federal employee unions, the governor wants to adopt a national right-to-work law, preventing private-sector workers from being forced to join unions as a condition of their employment.

But private union membership has been falling across the country for decades. It’s down to just 6.6 percent of workers. And half of the states, including Wisconsin, already have laws against forced union membership. So the impact of a federal mandate would be modest.

Moreover, Gov. Walker earlier this year said right-to-work laws are a state issue. Now he says it should be a federal issue. It’s more inconsistency, which has been the biggest weakness of his national candidacy.

Riding a national Republican wave of support in 2010, Walker came into office at a time when public unions in Wisconsin were powerful, and Democrats were doing their bidding. Walker could argue union power was a deterrent to fixing the state budget and improving our schools.

But that fight is long over. Walker beat the public unions here, made them contribute to their pensions and benefits, and forbid them from bargaining for raises greater than inflation.

His reforms don’t neatly apply to the federal government. And they run counter to his rhetoric about states rights.

The National Labor Relations Board, which Walker says he wants to eliminate, has tended to favor unions in recent years. But that mostly reflects that members have been appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama. When Republicans have held the presidency, the opposite is true.

At tonight’s second Republican presidential debate in California, we’d like to hear more about the big stuff, not partisan wedge issues that encourage the candidates to be as conservative as possible.

That’s not where most Americans are at politically. And pushing the Republican candidate too far to the right during the party’s primary could cost the GOP the 2016 election.

Walker’s record in Wisconsin should appeal to many Republican voters for president. But he’ll need to broaden his message far beyond fighting unions to win the White House.