Today’s chatter about nominating former governor Jeb Bush of Florida for president confirms a borderline-tragic lack of imagination among establishment Republicans. Yet another Bush? Beyond being hopelessly royalist, a Bush-45 administration would disinter the “kinder/gentler” and “compassionate” strains of conservatism. Translation: One more heaping helping of low-sodium socialism — the Bush family’s signature dish.
Meanwhile, New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s Blunt Talk Express now looks more like the Blustermobile. Despite some spending restraint, the Garden State’s economy remains stuck in neutral. Unemployment is 7.1 percent, above America’s 6.7 percent joblessness. Standard & Poor’s downgraded the state’s credit rating one level on Wednesday, from AA- to A+. “New Jersey continues to struggle with structural imbalance and stands in stark difference to many of its peers who registered sizeable budgetary surpluses in fiscal 2013,” S&P scolded.
Meanwhile, Bridgegate’s clouds darken the path from Trenton to Pennsylvania Avenue. It cannot help Christie’s ambitions that a federal grand jury now is searching for his fingerprints on the traffic cones that graced the George Washington Bridge.
Against this backdrop, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin should be the Republican standard-bearer. The Badger State’s 46-year-old chief executive possesses priceless assets:
A stalwart commitment to fiscal conservatism and limited government. In his inaugural address, Walker warmly invoked his state constitution’s Frugality Clause: “It is through frugality and moderation in government that we will see freedom and prosperity for our people.” In his book Unintimidated (with Marc Thiessen), Walker approvingly cites Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Milton Friedman. “There’s a reason why in America we take a day off to celebrate the Fourth of July and not the fifteenth of April,” Walker writes. “In America, we value independence from the government and not dependence on it.”
A wealth of management experience, something still in dangerously short supply in the Oval Office. Since January 2011, Walker has supervised 11 agencies and 17 departments. His 69,263 employees (down from 70,673 as he arrived) serve 5.7 million Wisconsinites. In 2004, Walker won a four-year term as Milwaukee County executive with 57 percent of the vote, and was reelected with 59 percent. He reduced the county’s debt by one-tenth and its headcount by one-fifth.
Walker has combined his principles, leadership skills, and organizational prowess into an enviable record of free-market accomplishments.
“The days of double-digit tax increases, billion-dollar deficits, and major job losses are gone,” Walker declared in his State of the State speech on January 22. “We replaced them with massive tax cuts, growing budget surpluses, and significant job growth. Wisconsin is going back to work.”
Walker led an epic struggle to reform collective bargaining and end automatic deduction of union dues from state employees’ paychecks. These modernizations have reduced labor costs and boosted flexibility from Madison to city halls across Wisconsin. With union membership now voluntary, thousands are staying away. AFSCME Council 48 has plunged from 9,043 members in 2011 to 3,498 today — down 61.3 percent.
As the State Policy Network’s president Tracie Sharpe notes, “The weakened unions have, in turn, weakened the state politicians who depend on them, ending a vicious cycle of Big Labor helping to grow Big Government, which helped Big Labor, and so on.”
Walker signed a $504 million tax cut on March 24, bringing his total tax relief to $2 billion.
He also has restructured Medicaid, expanded school choice, signed voter-ID legislation, and required childless food-stamp recipients to enroll in job training. “We’re not making it harder to get government assistance,” Walker said. “We’re making it easier to get a job.”
In 2010, Chief Executive magazine ranked Wisconsin America’s 41st most business-friendly state. It now is No. 17. (New Jersey, by contrast, has rocketed from No. 47 to No. 46.) In a 2009 survey, the Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce found that only 4 percent of employers believed that the Badger State was on the right track. Last December, that vote of confidence rose to 95 percent.
Walker inherited a $3.6 billion budget deficit. His fiscal restraint, pro-market posture, and consequent economic expansion all helped turn this into a $911 million surplus today. Walker says that “our state pension system is the only one in the U.S. that is fully funded.” Morningstar concurs. “Several states have very strong pension systems,” the bond-rating company observed. “Wisconsin remains the strongest system, with a 99.9% funded ratio.”
Walker found just $1.7 million in Wisconsin’s rainy-day fund in 2011. It’s now $279 million — a 165-fold improvement.
Wisconsin’s unemployment is 6.1 percent — below the 6.7 across America and much lower than the 7.4 percent rate that greeted Walker’s arrival. PolitiFact Wisconsin counts 101,572 new jobs on Walker’s watch. He must hustle to keep his promise to help create 250,000 jobs in his first term. Still, Walker is far ahead of Jim Doyle, his Democratic predecessor, under whom 134,000 jobs vanished.
S&P last October judged Wisconsin’s credit rating “stable” at AA grade. The bond appraisers applauded the state’s “strengthening financial position, which, according to several measures, is healthier than it has been since 2000.”
If voters reelect him next November, Walker will have secured three statewide victories in this liberal stronghold. He became governor with 52.25 percent of the vote in November 2010 and won a June 2012 recall election with 53.1 percent. Walker is the only U.S. governor to survive a recall. The GOP could use such a battle-hardened warrior with a record of winning Democratic votes.
Walker has displayed tungsten-like toughness amid brutal adversity. As Unintimidated explains in riveting detail, Walker accomplished many of his reforms — especially reining in the government-worker unions’ special privileges — while enduring chillingly specific death threats against him and his family. (“Maybe one of your sons getting killed would hurt,” read one anonymous note. “I already follow them when they went to school in Wauwatosa, so it won’t be too hard to find them in Mad. Town . . . Lots of choices for me.”) Bullet casings suddenly appeared on the grounds of the state-capitol building during that rancorous debate. Open-minded, tolerant liberals disrupted his appearance at a Special Olympics event and even urinated on his office door. Walker kept calm and carried on.
Steely determination aside, Walker maintains a moderate demeanor and works with Democrats, especially now that they recognize his strengths and have decided to play nicely. Some 97 percent of the bills he has signed enjoyed bipartisan support. Compare this to Obamacare, which Obama and congressional Democrats barge-poled down America’s collective throat with zero Republican votes.
Principle, achievement, guts, and a mild manner. What’s not to like about this Eagle Scout? Some critics complain that Scott Walker lacks charisma.
Well, Mr. Charisma inhabits the White House right now. How’s that working out for us?
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.