In February, 2011, Scott Walker was just another Republican governor. A favorite of Newt Gingrich, billionaire Tea Partisans Charles and David Koch and wealthy advocates for privatization of education, the Wisconsinite had his national fans on the conservative circuit. But he was not a player, and no one (except perhaps Walker) thought he was headed for the national spotlight. Among the Republican governors ushered into power by the Republican wave of 2010, he was ranked with the “assistant Walmart manager” group of drab mandarins, along with Iowa’s Terry Branstad, South Dakota’s Dennis Daugaard and Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin. He didn’t have the national stature of Ohio’s John Kasich or Kansan Sam Brownback, nor the wild-eyed “say anything” appeal of Arizona’s Jan Brewer or Maine’s Paul LePage.
Yet, when the nation’s most prominent right-wing operatives and reactionary Republicans gathered for the Friday night keynote speech that is always the centerpiece of a Conservative Political Action Conference, it was not a Republican presidential candidates, nor a Congressional leader who was standing at the podium. It was Scott Walker.
Over the past year, this career politician from suburban Milwaukee has been remade in the eyes of conservatives as precisely what he wanted to be: a new Reagan. In a conversation that Walker thought he was having with the primary funder of campaigns on his behalf, David Koch, the governor who fondly recalls a teenage handshake with the fortieth president, painted himself as the Reagan Republicans have been waiting for. Recalling a dinner with cabinet members where he was preparing to “drop the bomb”—a set of attacks on collective-bargaining rights, cvil service protections, open government and local democracy that would shock his state and, ultimately, the nation—Walker said: “I stood up and I pulled out a picture of Ronald Reagan, and I said, you know, this may seem a little melodramatic, but thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan, whose hundredth birthday we just celebrated the day before, had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air-traffic controllers. And, uh, I said, to me that moment was more important than just for labor relations or even the federal budget, that was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism, because from that point forward, the Soviets and the Communists knew that Ronald Reagan wasn’t a pushover. And, uh, I said this may not have as broad of world implications, but in Wisconsin’s history—little did I know how big it would be nationally—in Wisconsin’s history, I said this is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history.”
Even when Walker uttered those words, in the midst of the unprecedented uprising that his February 11, 2011, announcement provoked, his comments did seem melodramatic—perhaps even delusional.
But a year later, Walker is a Republican rock star. He is pitched as a presidential or vice presidential prospect by players as powerful as South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. He jets around the country to headline events sponsored by the array of organizations developed by the Koch Brothers to advance a radical anti-labor, anti–public education, anti-democracy agenda as outlined by their American Legislative Exchange Council. He raises national money from right-wing donors at a rate that presidential candidates would envy. And he is able to elbow aside Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell for the prime speaking slot at the pre-eminent conservative gathering of the season.