Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a political careerist who has never taken one elected office without beginning to position himself to run for the next, made a wild play for the national stage just weeks after being sworn in last winter as a Republican governor with Republican majorities in both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature.
Using a supposedly minor “budget repair bill” as his vehicle, Walker proposed to scrap most collective bargaining rights for state, county and municipal employees and teachers, to radically restructure state government to concentrate power in the governor’s office and to use that power to limit access to healthcare for working families and seniors while bartering off public assets in no-bid deals with favored corporations.
If he could pull it off, Walker told himself and his closest associates, he could be what Republicans have been looking for since the mid-1980s: a new Ronald Reagan. It was a dream he outlined In an extended conversation with a caller who he thought was billionaire conservative campaign contributor David Koch. “Ronald Reagan, whose 100th 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,” Walker chirped, in the midst of a self-serving soliloquy. “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. And this is why it’s so important that they were all there. I had a cabinet meeting this morning and I reminded them of that and I said for those of you who thought I was being melodramatic you now know it was purely putting it in the right context.”
Now, almost four months into the fight, Walker does not look much like a new Reagan.
His anti-labor agenda has been blocked by the largest and most consistent pro-union demonstrations the United States has seen since the 1930s, along with legislative maneuvers and court orders. His personal approval ratings have flat-lined, and runs the risk of losing control of the state Senate to Democrats who are determined to block his initiatives.
Yet Walker refuses to compromise. So beholden is he to political paymasters such as the Koch brothers and the De Vos family, which has steered millions of dollars into the state to promote his extreme proposals to replace on of the nation’s strongest public education systems with voucher programs and privatization schemes, that the governor continues to pressure his legislative allies to enact a biennial budget that slashes spending for education and local services. Like his national counterpart, Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, Walker spins the fantasy that he is interested in balancing budgets. But his initiatives actually shift spending away from the public sphere and toward the accounts of major campaign contributors. To protect themselves politically, Walker and friendly legislators are busy seeding the budget proposals with anti-union proposals, which are designed to weaken organized labor as an electoral check and balance on corporate-tied Republican politicians. At the same time, they are rushing to enact draconian restrictions on voter participation and local democracy.
The governor’s “dictatorial” approach—as it has been described by the senior member of the state legislature—and his power plays have stirred a new outcry. Wisconsinites are back in the streets, camping out around the state Capitol as part of a “Walkerville” protest that takes its name from the “Hooverville” encampments of the Depression era. And they are protesting with renewed energy, massing Monday for a demonstration (led by former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold) that filled the streets around the Capitol with firefighters, police officers, state and local employees, steelworkers, students and their allies. This was the first of as serious of new demonstrations that are expected to rally tens of thousands of Wisconsinites against the governor’s budget. Already, the protests have scared Republican legislators into abandoning some aspects of the Walker agenda (assaults on care programs for seniors, recycling programs, a plan to begin privatizing the University of Wisconsin).
But Walker and the most desperate of his Republican compatriots are working overtime to implement as much of the governor’s program as possible. The reason for the aggressive push to enact unpopular programs is clear enough. Walker’s actions have so offended the voters of the state that they are preparing to remove his allies from state Senate seats and shift control of the legislative chamber from the Republicans to the Democrats. That would stall the governor’s agenda, increase the prospect that he might be recalled next January and knock him off any serious list of GOP presidential or vice presidential prospects.
Political operatives and lawyers aligned with Walker, the Republican majority in the state Senate and the state Republican Party are attempting to block the recall elections, while at the same time trying to force recall elections against Democratic senators who objected to the governor’s agenda.
It is not going well for Walker. Last week, the state Government Accountability Board (a combined elections and ethics agency) certified recall elections against the six targeted Republican senators. At the same time, the board asked for more time to review petitions that were filed against the Democratic senators—following revelations about fraudulent signature-gathering and the inclusion of the names of dead people on the petitions.
The Republicans cried foul and filed legal actions. But last Friday a circuit court judge upheld the accountability board’s position, and there is little reason to believe the Republicans will have more success in higher courts.
They will continue the delaying tactics, however, seeking to buy time to advance of the governor’s anti-labor, anti-education, anti–social services agenda as they can before their electoral judgment day. But their crude tactics are now so transparent that they have brought the people back into the streets. And the combination of protesting and political action is cornering the governor. He may still think he is the next Ronald Reagan. But he is looking more and more like Herbert Hoover every day.