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.
At CPAC, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the announcement that sent Wisconsin into turmoil, Walker wasted no time in making the Reagan comparison, opening his address with announcement that he had been called to public service. “And the prime inspiration for that call was a man named Ronald Reagan,” declared the governor, who was not so troubled by modesty to avoid suggesting that his actions in Wisconsin mirrored Reagan’s “bold leadership.”
But Scott Walker is not the next Reagan. Not yet.
The test of whether he is the future of the Republican Party, or just a right-wing fantasy fueled by corporate cash and delusions of grandeur, will come this spring, when he will face an unprecedented recall election. The vote in Wisconsin, provoked by petitions carrying 1 million signatures—the largest portion of a state’s electorate ever to demand the removal of a sitting governor—will decide whether the governor and his agenda will continue to define the politics of one state.
But it will also decide whether Walker will lead a movement that redefines the Republican Party not just as a more militantly anti-labor force than it has ever been but as a new sort of political project that seeks to limit the ability of its critics to organize, undermine voting rights, end open-government protections and pre-empt the authority of local elected officials. Just as Reagan altered the economic debate so radically that politicians of both parties still echo his false premises, Walker would alter the political debate so radically that American democracy could be irreparably damaged—chained and constrained as it has not been since the progressive reforms of a century ago began to extend America’s promise to all its citizens.
Walker knows this.
“[This] recall election is about much more than who is the governor of Wisconsin. In fact, it is even bigger than what it means for the elections in November of 2012,” Walker told the CPAC crowd in Washington. “This election is ultimately about courage. When we prevail, it will send a powerful message—not only in Madison but in Springfield and St. Paul, Columbus and Austin, and in state houses all across America. Most of all, it will send a message in the halls of Congress.”
“Lord help us if we lose,” Walker continued. “If we lose, I believe that it will set acts of courage in politics back at least a decade if not a generation. This is why we must not lose.”
Like Reagan before him, Walker defines serving the interests of economic royalism, taking big money to deliver big favors, and following an agenda dictated not by the needs of the American people but by the demands of those who write the biggest campaign checks as “courage.”
That is not courage. In a democracy, that is heresy. And it is the fight to banish that heresy from the politics not just of Wisconsin but of America that makes the recall and removal of Scott Walker the great democratic struggle of 2012.
John Nichols' new book on protests and politics, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, will be published next week by Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising