Scott Kevin Walker, fresh from a free-spending yet folksy campaign in which he carried his lunch in a brown paper bag and promised to create 250,000 jobs, delivered his first inaugural address as governor of Wisconsin on January 3, 2011. “I stand before you not as the governor of one party or another, or the governor of one part of the state or another,” he declared. “Today, I stand before you as the governor for all of the people in the state of Wisconsin.”
Days later, Walker traveled from Madison, the state capital, to Beloit, a working-class town battered by plant closings. But he wasn’t reaching out to laid-off workers or confirming his commitment to a city that hadn’t voted for him. He was meeting with Diane Hendricks, the billionaire who would become his most generous campaign donor. A political compatriot of the Koch brothers, Hendricks had a question for him: “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state, and work on these unions, and become a right-to-work [state]?” This was an explicitly political question about destroying unions, which generally back Democrats, as part of a strategy to turn the swing state of Wisconsin into a Republican bastion. Walker didn’t blink. “Yes…we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget-adjustment bill,” the new governor confided. “The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public-employee unions, because you use divide-and-conquer….”
Although this preacher’s son has developed a reputation for peddling many versions of the truth, Scott Walker never lies to billionaires who write campaign checks. Within weeks, he launched an assault on public-sector unions that provoked mass demonstrations and eventually led more than 900,000 Wisconsinites to petition for his removal. That battle, culminating with his victory in a recall election, helped to propel Walker onto the national stage as a conquering hero for Republicans, who have made him a front-runner for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination. But it also exposed the unblinking hypocrisy of Walker, the most politically savvy and comfortably cynical contender for the presidency since Richard Nixon.
When a video of the meeting with Hendricks surfaced just before the 2012 recall election, Walker knew he was in trouble. His answer was to deny everything, with the aw-shucks smile and knowing wink of a man who understands that in a new media age, it is possible to surf through a few days of bad publicity on a wave of echo-chamber spin and overwhelming campaign expenditures. He wasn’t talking about dividing and conquering Wisconsin for political purposes, Walker said; he was explaining (to a billionaire campaign donor) how to reduce the influence of “a handful of special interests.” As for enacting the anti-labor legislation he had promised Hendricks, Walker declared: “It’s not going to get to my desk. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it isn’t there.”