Scott Walker hagiography is in full swing.
As the governor himself humbly acknowledges, he “might have reformed [him]self out of a job.” The usual suspects have chimed in, partly to congratulate themselves for being central to an era of “big and bold ideas.”
A more detached assessment reaches less grandiose conclusions.
I don’t claim objectivity in reviewing the Walker tenure. My support for his political career dates to his initial run for the State Assembly, when I angered my boss (former Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament) for supporting Walker against Chris Ament. I subsequently raised substantial funds for Walker’s campaigns for county executive and governor, including the 2012 recall. My donations ceased after the recall.
The clear highpoint of Walker’s trajectory was on the evening of the recall. His victory was important for the integrity of Wisconsin government. He prevailed because enough independent voters realized you don’t yank someone from office over a policy fight unless it’s done at the next regular election.
But that highpoint was the start of a downfall that culminated with the loss to Tony Evers in November. An insular hubris consumed Walker and his close circle of advisers. It was understandable. He had beaten back an unprecedented electoral challenge.
Overnight, literally, he became a national political phenomenon. The money and support flowed. As night follows day, the prospect of a presidential run loomed. The feasibility gained traction when Walker delivered a strong Iowa caucus speech. He hit all the right rhetorical notes. But a run for president requires more than good sound bites. Campaign gaffes and flip-flops undercut his effort. But of course those were Rick Wiley’s fault.
The period between the 2012 recall and the Iowa speech was one of relentless political calculation. It’s hard to recall a single significant executive action that was not geared to defeating Mary Burke and using re-election in 2014 as a springboard to the White House in 2016. Longtime allies on various key issues came to understand that they were either seen as expendable or taken for granted, i.e., what was their option if not to support Walker?
When the governor faced his biggest threat — the seemingly endless John Doe investigations — highly reliable insiders learned that he might be ready to cut a deal. Word of the pending capitulation reached the Wall Street Journal. Its editorial on the matter effectively ended that chapter. This preserved the opportunity for an ultimate judicial victory, one that never would have occurred if Walker had settled to get the matter behind him.
It is indisputable that Walker’s record includes significant reforms.
Most notably, of course, is Act 10. The disproportionate clout of public sector unions had put Wisconsin local governments on a collision course with the kind of fiscal nightmares that are everyday news in Illinois and many other states.
Along with enactment of Act 10 there was Walker’s first budget. As he had been urged to do by fiscal hawk Sen. Mike Ellis, Walker and the legislature truly eliminated the multi-billion structural deficit that remains the principal legacy of former Gov. Jim Doyle. The structural deficit re-emerged, though on a lesser scale, in subsequent years, notwithstanding repeated GOP claims to have banished it. It has now been inherited by Governor-elect Evers.
As for right-to-work and prevailing wage, these were legislative gains initially resisted as “distractions” by a governor eager to get past the animated Act 10 environment. Walker’s signature on those measures was seen as a betrayal by former allies who had helped him defeat Burke in 2014. The eventual political impact? Think “Scott-holes.”
Walker understandably touted the positive direction of the state’s economy during his tenure. Governors, of course, get undue credit and blame for economic factors that often are beyond their control. This certainly will be the case when Evers seeks re-election after the almost inevitable recession that will come between now and 2022.
As for being the “education governor,” well, remember that fewer than half of Wisconsin students are deemed proficient in basic subjects. And while the cause of school choice is better off than when Walker took office, the last eight years were a period mainly of lost opportunities. The kind of meaningful (big, bold) progress that advocates hoped for, based on Walker pledges, gave way to Walker’s endless visits to local schools touting “historic” growth in traditional K-12 aid. He went so far as to signal opposition to a move that would put eligibility for statewide school choice on the same terms as it is in Milwaukee and Racine.
In terms of lasting impact, Walker clearly will rank among the state’s most notable governors. His failed run for president will, I believe, be overshadowed by Act 10 and Foxconn. At the same time, his legacy also includes mismanagement of such key functions as transportation finance and corrections.
What’s next for Walker? An astute observer commented to me this week that he would not be surprised to see his name surface in 2022. As someone who watched Richard Nixon say the press would not have him “to kick around” in 1962, a comeback attempt cannot be ruled out.