The Paradoxical Scott Walker

At great cost, a gifted but flawed leader moves the needle on change in Wisconsin

Jan 6, 2012

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On Nov. 19, 1955, the modern age of conservatism began with young Bill Buckley publishing the first issue of his new magazine, National Review. Famously, Buckley said in the mission statement that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” to the liberalism that had dominated American government for the first half of the twentieth century.

Almost fifty-five years later, inspired by the same beliefs as Buckley, Gov. Scott Walker stood athwart Wisconsin history and yelled Stop to a century’s worth of progressive policies, as he announced his plans to break Wisconsin’s public employee unions as a way to rein in government spending.

The move ignited a cataclysm of protests that remain unabated today. And they helped frame the three paradoxes that mark Scott Walker’s tumultuous first year in office.

Go figure…

  • For years, Scott Walker had been a likable and gifted politician—a conservative rock star who could convince Democrats to vote for him for three terms as county executive of decidedly liberal Milwaukee County. Yet today, after pursuing a political agenda that is either remarkably courageous or spectacularly suicidal (maybe both!), the affable Walker finds himself dangerously underwater in the polls, disliked by most Wisconsinites and blamed for the state’s political turmoil.
  • Even if Walker is ignominiously recalled from office in 2012, he seems certain to be judged by historians as a transformative governor who changed the political DNA of Wisconsin. In short, public employee unionism will never be the same after Scott Walker, even if liberals sweep to power at the Capitol.
  • Walker is an unabashed pro-business governor who has proved surprisingly inept on key development issues. Bereft of savvy business advice in his inner circle, this corporate cheerleader fumbled the crucial venture capital issue, wasting months, and seems prisoner of a simplistic eighties-style of economic thinking. Meanwhile, his brash pledge to oversee creation of 250,000 jobs in his first term could be the petard on which his own political career is blown up.

Make no mistake: the paradoxical Mr. Walker is difficult to explain. The old Kris Kristofferson line —“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction”—comes to mind.

Count me among the people who underestimated Walker. I interviewed him in May 2009 as a candidate in a gubernatorial election that was still seventeen months away. Walker was earnest and personable and had the easy grace of a political natural. Ask him a difficult question, Walker would lean forward, look you in the eye and calmly explain himself. No bluster, no anger, no sputtering.

Wow, this guy was good!

But demeanor aside, there was a moment when he seemed to float off into that cuckoo-land cloud of conservatism: He kept telling me that as governor he would expect public employees to give back some of their benefits to balance the state budget. AND THEY WOULD GET NOTHING IN RETURN.

This made no sense to me as a gray-bearded guy who grew up in heavily unionized Kenosha, whose dad was a Teamster and who lived on the near-east side of Madison where anarcho-syndicalists outnumber Republicans. Such naiveté! Such foolishness on Walker’s part! Everybody knew that public unions did not give back contracted items without getting something in return. Walker might as well have told me that he would balance the state budget by employing a team of industrious dwarves to spin straw into gold.

Of course, if there was a fool in that interview, it was I. Time proved Scott Walker absolutely right.

"Like him or not, Scott Walker is one of the few politicians who’s elected to do something and actually does it,” says Richard Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, adjunct professor at Marquette University and conservative blogger.

Less than two years later, Gov. Scott Walker had not just pushed state employees into paying sizably more bucks for their health insurance and retirement plans, but he had effectively busted their unions, reversing fifty years of labor law.

Even some Republicans say he botched the politics of it, but Steve Baas, a veteran conservative warrior, says the smack down was necessary. “I didn’t hear any of those geniuses saying that prospectively when this got rolled out,” he says. “What they really mean is: ‘I really like what the governor did to the unions, but I would never have had the balls to do it myself.’

“I’m sorry, but you are not going to change 100 years of a public-sector power trajectory without a polarizing fight,” says Baas, who’s vice president of governmental affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. “I don’t care if you’re Tommy Thompson, Ronald Reagan or Dale Carnegie. If you pick that fight, it’s going to be a bloody battle.”

This is true.

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