Let's not kid ourselves about what's really happening right now in Wisconsin. The new Republican governor's bold bid to strip public employee unions of their collective-bargaining rights is not just a parochial skirmish about finding money to close the budget deficit. It's about exploiting that state deficit for political gain, using it as an excuse to declare war, and perhaps eviscerate, the last healthy sector of the labor movement - a strategy nurtured these past four decades by national conservative strategists and their well-heeled backstage business donors.

Have public unions made mistakes, sometimes cocooning their members at the expense of the common good? Absolutely. I see no rational basis for protecting lousy teachers who deserve to be fired. Have public unions sometimes trafficked in arrogance? Absolutely. Gerald McEntee, who now heads the national AFSCME, turned off a lot of people back in the '70s when, in his capacity as leader of Pennsylvania's AFSCME, he articulated this rallying cry: "Let's go out and close down this goddamned state." And, as a general rule, I can accept the rational argument that public unions should be prodded to make concessions during this economic emergency.

But conservatives smell a greater golden opportunity in all that red ink. They've previously ridiculed Rahm Emanuel's '08 quip about how "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste," but now they've adopted it - by launching a radical attack on the core principle of collective bargaining. If successful, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, they might achieve their aim of turning back the clock to the era, circa 1929, when all workers were at the mercy of their employers.

"This is about balancing the budget," Gov. Walker insisted yesterday on Fox News. Yeah, sure. What this is really about is raw partisan power. If the Republicans can bust these public unions - many of which are financially sympathetic to Democratic candidates - they can boost their party in future elections.

Which explains why Wisconsin is currently the laboratory for a GOP bill that, aside from severely curbing the right to collectively bargain, would also bar public unions from collecting money from consenting workers' paychecks for political operations, and force the unions to hold annual elections on whether they should remain in existence. (Gov. Walker has exempted, from his attack, the public unions that represent cops and firefighters. Those unions supported his candidacy in 2010).

Yes, a lot of public unions have good wages and benefits. But blaming these unions for the states' red ink is a serious overreach. North Carolina, Arizona, and Nevada currently have budget deficits far deeper than Wisconsin's - and none of those states allow their public employees to bargain collectively. Or you can turn the equation around, and look at it this way: Ohio, Massachusetts, Montana, and New Mexico give their public workers bargaining rights - yet the current budget deficits in those states aren't nearly as severe as the deficits in non-union North Carolina, Arizona, or Nevada.

The deficits are merely the excuse; the ideological planning has percolated for decades, regardless of whether the economy was booming or tanking, regardless of whether states were running surpluses or deficits. Conservative think tanks have long been hostile toward public unions (despite the fact that Republican president Richard Nixon strengthened bargaining rights in a 1969 executive order; despite the fact that California Gov. Ronald Reagan - yup, Reagan - signed a '68 law that legalized state public-sector bargaining). The uber-rich Koch brothers have bankrolled a slew of anti-public union organizations, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, and Americans for Prosperity (an astroturf tea-party group). Not surprisingly, the Koch brothers were major financial supporters of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's '10 campaign.

And, needless to say, it's entirely predictable that Walker, cheered on by many of the Republican presidential aspirants, prefers to go after teachers and other middle-class public workers rather than demand any concessions from the people who dwell at the top of the income scale.

The Wisconsin fight has quickly morphed into a national competition for hearts and minds. The GOP's timing is potentially fortuitous. Millions of laid-off private sector workers are not likely to rise to the defense of the public unions; in the current climate, the Republicans have a chance to do what they always do best - stoke resentment. And the baseline support for unions in general is not nearly as strong as it once was; according to the latest nonpartisan Pew Research poll, 45 percent of Americans have a favorable view of all unions, and 41 percent don't - the lowest favorability rating of the past quarter century. Public unions draw a 48 percent positive rating, with 40 percent signaling a negative view.

Actually, those poll stats should be enough for Democrats to work with, but we all know they're not nearly as adept at messaging as the other party. Theoretically, it shouldn't be difficult for labor's allies to point out the obvious, which is that unions were instrumental in growing the American middle class; and that the income gap between rich and poor widened considerably during the first decade of the 21st century, in tandem with the ongoing decline of labor's clout. Indeed, the current income gap is the greatest since 1929.

It's particularly noteworthy that the war on public unions has started in Wisconsin, given the state's proud history as an incubator of progressivism. A Wisconsonite, FDR advisor Edwin Witte, was a pivotal player in the creation of Social Security. Wisconsin was the first state to enact workmen's compensation. It was the first state to recognize the collective bargaining rights of public employes (in 1959). Forgive me for paraphrasing Frank Sinatra, but if the Republicans can successfully turn back the clock there, they can do it anywhere.