The Paradoxical Scott Walker
At great cost, a gifted but flawed leader moves the needle on change in Wisconsin
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.
- 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.
Newly elected Scott Walker marched into Madison in January 2011 with the resolve of Sherman storming Atlanta in 1864, cannons firing and torches lit. In the eyes of most Madisonians, he looted our town and sowed our fields with salt.
A city of Madison fiscal analysis estimated that Walker’s budget-repair bill would drain $250 million from the local economy. Using a different measure, the liberal-minded Institute for Wisconsin’s Future estimated that the 65,000 public workers in Dane County would each lose about $3,000 in take-home pay—translating to about $200 million lost in local economic activity.
And then Walker announced a two-year pay freeze for state employees!
Such are the consequences of life in a faltering company town—government is our big mill, employing about one-in-four residents. But for Scott Walker and his supporters, walking back public employee perks was only fair, considering that many taxpayers have suffered even bigger givebacks and greater jobs losses in the private sector.
Walker told WISC-TV3 and Madison Magazine’s Neil Heinen: “Better we all have a little less to spend” (smartly including himself as a public employee) than the state having to resort to massive layoffs like Illinois did.
“You never heard me say anything other than good things for people who dedicate their lives to public service,” Walker added. “But many of us need to put this in context [of the economic circumstances] of all the other people who pay our salaries.”
The hard truth is that Walker’s view of the public sector was forged in the red-hot failures of liberal government in Milwaukee, in the aftermath of one of the uglier governmental scandals in Wisconsin history. There was a corrupt county pension program that saw veteran county workers collecting, besides their monthly pensions, one-time bonuses rising into the six figures and sometimes approaching $1 million.
Bad enough on its own, the pension outrage was one in a series of skeezy episodes in Milwaukee area governance over the last few decades. This runs the gamut from corrupt officials being sent to prison, to teachers of the chronically troubled Milwaukee Public Schools suing for health insurance coverage to pay for their sexual aids, to county workers facing charges of ripping off the food program that helps feed poor people, to, yes, even more revelations about Milwaukee County’s still opulent retirement program. (Turns out that a boatload of county employees find themselves eligible to retire at age 50—one guy, who long ago started as a high school lifeguard, at 47.)
As costly as the continuing pension scandal has been, Milwaukee historian John Gurda says, “The real loss was public trust in the institution of government. That continues. The Republicans are riding that wave.”
This is a takeaway point: Cynicism about government—whether it’s directed at the Capitol or at City Hall—is never good for liberals and their activist programs. The Republican sweep in the fall 2010 elections in Wisconsin can be explained in part by the decay and crack-up of the Democratic Party under outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle and a clueless Democratic legislature.
“Walker picked up on something that the Democrats didn’t see—all of the nonsense and foolishness at the Capitol,” says Bill Kraus, a veteran commentator. “Doyle never dealt with the deficit, and he wasn’t honest with budget. He danced around everything. I still don’t know why he wanted to be governor.”
Even Gurda, who’s highly critical of what he sees as Walker’s attack on Wisconsin’s political traditions, thinks the governor has fundamentally changed the state’s political dynamic. An energized labor movement will rebound, he says, but it won’t regain all of the ground it lost under Walker.
“The pendulum has swung way to the right, and it will swing back, but not as far back to the left as it was. What Scott Walker has done is change the set point on what’s acceptable for labor and government,” he explains. “People will get accustomed to the new realities. He has, in a lot of ways, created the new normal.”
And for good reason, suggests Brandon Scholz, a veteran political strategist and Capitol lobbyist. He argues that the old liberal programs and regulations that might have worked in the past don’t work now. Businesses in particular are hamstrung by a myriad of regulations. “Do we really need all this—the massive growth of government since the days of the LaFollettes?” he asks.
Like Gurda, Scholz’s sense is that Walker has redefined the political debate. “It’s not just with the unions. It’s about tax policy. It’s about regulatory policy. It’s about ratcheting back government.”
Brett Healy, president of the conservative MacIver Institute, makes the same point. “In five to ten years when we look back, these will be some of the biggest, most important changes we’ve seen in a generation.”
Kraus says that Democrats are secretly pleased that the teachers union—the Wisconsin Education Association Council—has taken a fall. “They’ll never publicly admit it, but WEAC was a curse and a blessing,” he says. “WEAC funded the Democrats, but they had to dance to the union drummer.”
Bill Buckley indeed. Like the great conservative, Scott Walker has stood athwart Wisconsin history and cried Stop!
Trouble is, he’s done a dreadful job convincing the voters why it was all necessary. This is puzzling because Walker was under fierce and constant attack in Milwaukee County from labor and its allies and yet had no problem getting his message out to the voters.
Somehow Scott Walker lost his groove when he got to the East Wing. You even see it in how he talks. Walker has a tendency to rush through his points as if they’re boilerplate disclaimers in a TV infomercial. So when he admits that, yes, he could have done a better job selling the public on his changes in labor law, it sounds flat, insincere and not a product of introspection.
John Gurda, writing in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, offered a scorching take on the Walker gubernatorial style, saying, “Here, you sense, is a man who has not been wrong one day in his life, a true believer so sure of what’s right for him that he just knows it’s right for all the rest of us as well. He governs with a reptilian calm, unmoved by protest and unblinking in the bright light of national scrutiny.”
Joel Rogers, head of a progressive think tank called the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, picks up the same vibe. He says Walker fits in comfortably with right radicals like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist, who openly say: “Let’s repeal the New Deal and take the country all the way back to the pre–Teddy Roosevelt days of [President William] McKinley.”
On Oct. 18, as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce marked its 100th anniversary, Walker was introduced to thunderous applause at the business group's annual meeting at Monona Terrace.
This was a love affair of shared passions, expressed in part by WMC having spent $950,000 to elect Walker.
Kurt Bauer, WMC’s new boss, observed that WMC was launched as a protest against the Progressives enacting the highest corporate income tax in the land in 1911. Walker, taking note, said he had declined to be sworn into office standing in the traditional spot in the Capitol next to the bust of Wisconsin’s Progressive icon, Fightin’ Bob LaFollette, opting instead for the state constitution as the backdrop.
Touting his record, the governor cited passage of an honestly balanced budget, tax cuts, tort reform, new tools for local governments to manage their budgets, regulatory relief and more—all of which he said had produced a strikingly buoyant attitude of Wisconsin business leaders as revealed in a recent poll. Wisconsin, he bragged, was “one of the best places in the world to invest.”
He couldn’t resist a dig at neighboring Illinois and its budget and tax woes, saying he and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana were competing to lure businesses out of Illinois to their friendlier borders.
“We have a clear goal … to help you create 250,000 jobs between now and 2015,” Walker told the business leaders.
This was a happy crowd and a pleased governor. But it doesn’t take much poking around to see deep cracks in Walker’s development efforts. Begin with the fact there are no business leaders of note in his administration. Just who he turns to for advice isn’t widely known either, even among the supportive conservatives on the outside. (The one name that comes up is Michael Grebe, the GOP’s eminence grise in Wisconsin, who ran Walker’s transition team.)
In search of answers, I couldn’t score an interview with Walker or any of his top aides. But Steve Baas says that Walker tried hard to pull more business talent into his circle, but failed. “You’re asking somebody to take a significant pay cut and leave a successful business to go into an environment that is very hostile, highly politicized and where you have an adversarial press trying to tear you down. That’s a tough ask.”
One business exec who’s dealt with Walker gives this critical portrait of the East Wing operation: The governor is ill-served by a staff steeled in politics and campaigns, but not in business or in running a bureaucracy. “This is the first Republican administration that doesn’t have any businesspeople in its inner circle,” the observer says with chagrin. Walker himself doesn’t think like a business executive, the person adds.
“He doesn’t do traditional business analysis where you conclude, ‘This is a good idea, but this is a better idea even though they’re kind of close.’ In Walker’s case, most of the decisions seem to come down to a moral certainty in which choosing among options A, B or C doesn’t seem to cross his mind.”
All this makes for some bad ju-ju.
It came home came home to roost on the critical issue of raising venture capital for business start-ups—a pressing need by all accounts. The Walker administration initially threw its support behind a heavily lobbied plan that, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, would have poured millions of dollars in tax breaks to big insurers, while granting control of the “Jobs Now Fund” to non-Wisconsin financial firms that would pocket the lion’s share of profits.
The plan blew up in a gale of controversy. An alternative strategy, with state control and far more accountability, was hatched, but lawmakers were soon distracted by such vital matters as sex education, concealed weapons and the castle doctrine. The fall legislative session ended with a stunning failure: Nothing had been done to address the need for venture capital. Walker had lost control of the legislative agenda.
The governor views development as most politicians do: Offer incentives to lure businesses from other locales. Promote real estate projects. Assume that political borders define markets. He adds the conservative special sauce of tax cuts and similar spices. Most of this is strikingly at odds with the economic development sentiments offered by two old pros—UW–Madison emeritus economics professor Don Nichols and West Bend manufacturer and longtime business commentator John Torinus—last February in their economics chalk talk before the Wisconsin Academy at Overture Center. Walker and his young staff should have been taking notes.
Even then, when the Wisconsin economy was showing a few green shoots of life, Nichols said it was “very unlikely” that 250,000 jobs would be created in the next four years. This recession and its recovery were tracking very differently than previous economic cycles. “In the short run, state policies have almost no effect on state job growth,” he said with a dour finality, explaining that the national trends would tell Wisconsin’s story.
Torinus was less deterministic, arguing that the key to growth lies in entrepreneurial start-ups. That’s why Wisconsin’s chronic shortage of venture capital was such a big problem for the state. The best and brightest would head to the coasts, where investors were more likely to finance good ideas.
His big push was for fostering companies that export outside of the region. They brought in the money that circulated to “derivative” businesses in the region. Torinus was unimpressed with the usual government strategies. Job-training programs might prepare workers for better jobs, but they didn’t create those jobs. Real estate development was a classic derivative thing. As for raiding other states to recruit businesses, as Walker brags of doing in Illinois, it seldom works, Torinus warned.
He asked for shout-outs of successful examples of recruiting out-of-state firms to Wisconsin. Kikkoman, Mercury Marine… “In 40 years of following this, I’ve seldom gotten beyond the digits on one hand,” he said. “If you’re a business guy like me and something doesn’t work in four months, you move on to something else.” Left unsaid was what he thought of politicians who keep touting the same old strategy year after year.
Nichols, displaying a rare moment of humor, puckishly said that Walker’s chance of hitting the 250,000 benchmark depended almost entirely on President Obama’s success in turning around the national economy. That prompted a laugh: Who would have thought that the fates of Walker and Obama are intertwined!
But paradoxes are a staple of the Walker administration. None is more painful than the state economy stalling under a governor who celebrates business. In January, Walker boasted about Wisconsin’s tax climate while ridiculing Illinois, as he invited flatlander businesses to move north. One problem: By October Wisconsin led the nation in monthly job losses (-9,700) while Illinois led the nation in job gains (+30,000).
This was the fifth straight month of bad news on the Wisconsin job front.
Here’s the bottom line: Standing athwart history to shout Stop to public employee unions will put Scott Walker into the history books. But it probably won’t determine his political future, despite what labor and its friends fervently believe.
The economy will.
Voters are concerned about jobs, about economic security above all else. Based on his first-year performance, Scott Walker has work to do.
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Marc Eisen is former editor of Isthmus and a Madison-based writer.