Scott Walker’s Humblebrag

by Christian Schneider
In his new book, the Wisconsin governor lays out his vision for America.

On the evening of June 5, 2012, after he had been declared the winner of a historic recall election, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker hugged his friend Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and took a call from presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Amid sobbing supporters, Walker’s wife, Tonette, pulled him aside and suggested he begin his victory speech by saying, “This is what democracy looks like!”

That phrase had been the rallying cry of Walker’s political opponents for months, as they marched around the state capitol in Madison and stalked the governor at his home. Following Walker’s announcement of his bold plan to eliminate many collective-bargaining provisions for most state and local government employees, protesters began occupying the capitol building, chanting loudly, and occasionally spitting on Republican legislators. The nation watched as Walker stared down organized labor, while unions attempted, unsuccessfully, to remove him from office.

On election night, Walker smiled as he considered turning the taunt around on the unions. “After hearing tens of thousands of people chanting that very phrase outside my window for months, it would have been enormously satisfying to deliver it,” he says in his new book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge. But Walker decided not to twist the knife: “I wanted to use my speech as a chance to end the acrimony, and unite our state once again.”

(As Walker deliberated what to say, Rebecca Kleefisch, his irrepressible lieutenant governor, who had just survived a recall attempt herself, took the stage and immediately yelled, “This is what democracy looks like!”)

While he was waiting to speak, Walker says, he remembered a devotional reading on the “power of humility, the burden of pride.” But if, on election night, he had qualms about remaining humble, they seem to have subsided since then.

In Unintimidated (due out November 19 and co-written with Marc Thiessen), Walker strives for the delicate balance a rising politician must seek: He has to show readers he is genuine and down-to-earth, and at the same time explain that is was his preternatural personal strength that allowed him to do such extraordinary things.

Much of his fortitude he outsources to God, explaining that the collective-bargaining reform bill and the ensuing union attacks were part of the Lord’s plan. But unfortunately, God is not a Wisconsin voter (or at least we don’t know he is, as the state cannot yet compel its citizens to show a photo ID at the polling place), and Walker faced a steep hill in explaining his proposal to the electorate. Soon after the controversy began, his approval rating dipped to 37 percent. At one point, Time magazine declared him “Dead Man Walker.”

And this is why Walker deserves to have a sizable burden of pride. He pulled off a remarkable feat in a state that was both the first in the nation to allow public-sector collective bargaining and the birthplace of AFSCME. Unintimidated succeeds at summarizing the key challenges Walker faced, and he doesn’t hold back in criticizing his opponents. Rather than using tempered politician-talk, he rips the public-sector-union system as “corrupt,” characterizes the compulsory-dues framework as a “protection racket,” and bemoans the “lavish benefits” the unions have “extorted” from taxpayers over the years.

Walker’s attempt to correct these problems is what sent Wisconsin into a Hobbesian state of nature in early 2011, when hundreds of thousands of protesters descended on the state capitol in Madison, with thousands of them setting up shop in the statehouse and planning to stay for the duration. (“The place smelled like a Port-a-John,” Walker complains.) Walker provides harrowing details about the threats to him and his family and tells how SWAT teams had to be called in to retain control of the capitol building. (“It was like a scene out of Call of Duty,” Walker says, perhaps outing himself as a video-game enthusiast.) At one point, 14 Democratic state senators fled the state in order to block a vote on Walker’s plan.

But while he doesn’t pull his punches with organized labor, Walker saves his most stinging criticism for presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

After Walker’s big win on June 5, Romney tried to use the victory to bolster his own candidacy. President Obama, Romney said, “says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” He then asked: “Did he not get the message of Wisconsin?”

Yet Walker says it was Romney who completely misread the message of Wisconsin; it was Walker’s reforms — requiring public employees to begin paying into their pension accounts and requiring them to pay 12.6 percent of their health-insurance premiums — that actually saved teachers’ jobs. (Plus, police and firefighters were exempt from Walker’s law.) When he took office in January of 2011, Walker faced a budget deficit of over $3 billion; had his proposal failed, massive layoffs would have been unavoidable.

Further, Walker derides Romney for his attempt to pit “takers” against “makers,” citing Ronald Reagan to bolster his point. (As is the case with most modern Republican memoirs, Unintimidated mentions Reagan more often than Ernie’s autobiography would mention Bert.) “Reagan did not dismiss 47 percent of the country as a bunch of moochers,” Walker says, indicating a need to appeal to people who want “nothing more than to get off government assistance and find work.”

Walker’s critiques of Romney provide him a trampoline to elucidate what he believes are the lessons America can learn from Wisconsin. He offers familiar bromides, such as that “too many people in politics today spend their time trying not to lose instead of trying to do the right thing.”

As it happens, Walker’s chapter offering prescriptions for America closely mirrors the stump speech he has been delivering lately (including in — ahem — Iowa), but there’s a good reason for that: It is an effective speech, and he has the gravitas to deliver it. When Walker urges conservatives to show up in the inner city more often and spread the free-market message there, he knows it works because he has done it: In being elected and twice reelected Milwaukee County executive, he routinely won the City of Milwaukee’s Hispanic wards and overperformed in other majority-minority areas, where he talked of entrepreneurship and school choice. Walker recommends that conservatives talk more of “fairness” in order to avoid being accused of being tied to “big business” and “the rich.”

Attempts to soften the edges of conservatism and the GOP are cyclical; Peter Baker, in his new book Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, discusses how President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” attempted to save Republicans from what Karen Hughes called the “grinchy old Republican” days of government shutdowns.

Yet Walker’s remedies demonstrate that conservatism is inherently compassionate, without needing an insulting catchphrase as a sales pitch. Given the hard line a small group of GOP leaders in Congress has recently taken, Walker is hoping it is time for Republicans nationally to take notice of someone who has demonstrated the ability to build consensus while sticking to his principles. Unintimidated is Scott Walker’s first book as an author; it is likely as well to be his first chapter as a national political figure.

— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and covered the Wisconsin protests for NRO.