Could there be irony greater than that of a career politician appearing before a gathering of political donors in a city far from his home state to declare that he is an outsider and a “reformer”?
Indeed, it would take a mighty tone-deaf politician to miss the surreal moment in which he found himself.
Meet Scott Walker.
The Wisconsin governor has spent much of the month of November scrambling around the television studios, luxury hotel suites and corporate-funded “think tanks” of Washington and New York, desperately attempting to position himself as a Republican presidential prospect. And he has done so without any sense of irony.
And an expectation that the national media will be gullible enough to believe that the most divisive governor in the modern history of Wisconsin—polls show that his classic swing state is almost evenly divided between those who approve and disapprove of the governor—can somehow run for the presidency as a consensus builder. Walker is now being pitched by the co-writer of the governor’s 2016 campaign book—Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge—as the ideal GOP candidate for the presidency.
Of all the “compelling potential standard-bearers” for the party, argues Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, “none is better positioned to energize the conservative grassroots while winning the center than Scott Walker.”
Thiessen imagines Walker “as an across-the-board, unflinching, full-spectrum conservative” with an ability to appeal “to persuadable, reform-minded, results-oriented independents.”
That may be what Walker says. But that’s not the assessment of state Senator Dale Schultz, a Republican who has worked with Walker for two decades and who enthusiastically backed Walker in 2010.
This year, Schultz opposed Walker’s approach to a state budget process that the senator said veered—on everything from school funding to academic freedom to tax policy to local control—into territory that was “way too extreme.”
Schultz, a veteran legislator from rural western Wisconsin, criticized Walker for “passing up an opportunity to show independent leadership.”
“No amount of rhetoric or sloganeering will cover up the influence of an out of state billionaire funded and driven agenda,” declared Schultz. “This is not the Wisconsin agenda I’ve fought for over 30 years, and it’s not the Wisconsin agenda I hear from people as I travel around my district and across the state.”
Walker and his allies are doing everything they can to foster the fantasy that the governor as an outsider, a reformer, the antithesis of poilitics as usual. That was certainly the agenda last week, when Walker appeared in New York City before a November 18 gathering of top check writers for Republican candidates, Walker ripped the Democrat he hopes to run against in 2016—Hillary Clinton—for her long record of public service. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t just secretary of state, wasn’t just a U.S. senator, wasn’t just the first lady. She’s been a product of Washington for decades.”
Always at the ready for some self-promotion, Walker told the Republican crowd in New York that “if we’re going to beat somebody like Hillary Clinton, we’ve got to have somebody from outside of Washington, who’s got a proven record of reform.”
So, let’s review: Clinton’s the insider and Walker’s the outsider, right?
Not so fast.
Though she spent many years in Arkansas, Clinton has certainly done her time in Washington. And she is certainly no innocent when it comes to the maneuverings and manipulations that take place in the capitals of states and nations. So even if she is not a “product” of Washington, she is certainly no newcomer to the political game.
And what of Walker?
The governor conveniently forgot to mention that he began his own political career at age 22 and has, since then, run twenty-three years primary and general election campaigns in twenty-three years—making him one of the most determined careerists in American politics. And even before he finishes his first term as one of the nation’s most embattled governors, Walker is bidding for the presidency—so much so that he did not bother to correct a questioner in New York who began: “Since you’re clearly running for president…”
The problem with careerists is that they are often more interested in their careers than in challenging power.
In a word, they are: intimidated.
But Walker says that’s not him.
The governor’s new book seeks to portray this would-be presidential contender as an fearless political warrior, ever at the ready to advance his ideals.
That, like Walker’s suggestion that his austerity agenda has been successful, is a fantasy grounded in his ambition rather than reality.
In fact, Walker is one of the most intimidated politicians in America.
When Walker ran for governor in 2006, he framed a reform message that talked about ending crony capitalism and addressing the influence of special-interest campaign money and lobbying on the state budget process. In meetings with the state’s newspaper editorial boards, he pitched himself as a different kind of Republican who would not play insider political games. Walker earned some high marks when he “vowed to run as an underdog battling party insiders”—except from party insiders, who were unimpressed with his campaign.
In March 2006, just days after Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman visited Wisconsin, and barely a week after a visit to the state by Vice President Dick Cheney, Walker folded his gubernatorial campaign.
No “unintimidated” stand against the Washington power brokers. No fight to the end on behalf of his ideals. No faith that a grass-roots campaign could beat the money power.
Four years later Walker was back, with a better fundraising operation. This time, he had all the right connections. National donors, like Charles and David Koch, made maximum contributions to his campaign, and then gave even more money to groups making “independent” expenditures on Walker’s behalf.
He won, and in February 2011, when he got a call from someone he thought was David Koch, Walker played along with the caller’s talk about “planting some troublemakers” to disrupt peaceful protests against the governor’s anti-labor policies. Walker writes in his book that “we never—never—considered putting ‘troublemakers’ in the crowd to discredit the protesters.” Yet, when he was talking to someone he thought was a billionaire campaign donor, the governor said: “We thought about that.” If we take Walker at his word—that he never considered using agents provocateurs—then why didn’t he say so at the time? Was he intimidated by someone he thought was a major campaign donor?
The same question arises regarding Walker’s conversation with Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who gave $500,000 to his 2012 campaign. Walker has said he has “no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation” to weaken private-sector unions. Yet, when Hendricks asked him about right-to-work legislation, Walker did not say, “We’re not going to do that.” Rather, he told Hendricks his “first step” would be to attack public-sector unions as part of a “divide-and-conquer” strategy.
Walker wants a frequently obtuse national media and grassroots Republicans to imagine that he is “unintimidated.” And perhaps that is the case when he is picking on teachers and nurses and anyone who might dare to join a public-employee union. But when the party bosses and billionaire donors come calling, he’s just another politician telling the money power what it wants to hear.
John Nichols catalogues how Scott Walker’s memories of his years as governor diverge from reality.