Madison, Wis. – The town of Madison, where I went to college, is one of the loveliest places in America. Nestled close together on tree-lined streets, among old wooden houses bedecked with front porches, are the state’s government and flagship university, all on an isthmus barely a mile wide that snakes its way between four beautiful lakes. It has some of the friendliest, most close-knit, park-filled neighborhoods you will ever visit.
It is also one of the most left-wing places you will ever visit. And this year it is the center of one of the most important election battles in the country, in which Wisconsin governor Scott Walker faces Mary Burke, a former executive of Trek Bicycle. In the balance are his hopes for the 2016 presidential contest. But the election is even more important for another reason: It is a test of whether conservative reforms can yield results widely enough and quickly enough to win lasting political support, even in the teeth of a concerted progressive counterattack.
Drearily enough, it’s been that way for a long time. The art of painting opponents as corrupt tools of special interests (whether they are or not) was refined a hundred years ago in Wisconsin by the original progressive, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. La Follette’s chief opponent was the leader of the “Stalwarts,” Emanuel Philipp, by all accounts a scrupulously honest Milwaukee businessman who, in the words of one historian, “believed firmly in the traditional American values of uprightness, thrift, and hard work.” Philipp opposed the progressive assault on property rights, but he had a more fundamental objection to La Follette’s style of politics. In a letter to the Milwaukee Journal during the 1910 election, Philipp groused:
Men with political ambitions have assailed the position of the conservative element, charging its members generally with being in league with vicious trusts and combinations organized to plunder the people. This style of politics is vicious, because it does not give men who hold conservative views the credit to which they are entitled as honest and patriotic citizens.
When the progressives’ intimidation campaign failed to squelch Walker’s proposals, 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois so that the senate would not be able to form a quorum and hold a vote; that tactic failed when the bill was split in two and Walker’s reforms passed; progressives then launched a brutal campaign against a state supreme-court judge up for reelection, because they thought he might vote to sustain the law; and when that failed, they resorted to recall elections, first of state senators and then of the governor himself. Activists and money poured in from all sides and all across the country. Walker became a conservative hero and a national figure.
It was a precipitous ascent from the small Wisconsin farm town where Walker was raised. His father was a Baptist preacher. His mother is fond of saying that “to do good in life, we must do good to others.” (She regularly bakes cookies and cakes for the staff.) Walker tells me that his upbringing — and the presidency of Ronald Reagan — gave him a calling to public service early on.
When he was barely 35, he was elected chief executive of the heavily Democratic Milwaukee County, which was then facing a catastrophic budget shortfall. Walker concluded right away that public-sector benefits would have to be trimmed in order to avoid public-sector layoffs. But under the state’s public-sector collective-bargaining rules, his proposals had to be approved by the union, which refused to give up any benefits. When Walker told local county union head Rich Abelson that Milwaukee would have to lay off hundreds of workers if an agreement couldn’t be reached, Abelson said coldly, “Go ahead and do it.”
In Walker’s nine years as county executive of Milwaukee, he struggled constantly against public-sector unions bent on protecting their prerogatives, no matter what the consequences for the city as a whole. So, when Indiana governor Mitch Daniels advised the newly elected governor Walker to “go big, go bold, and strike fast” if he wanted reforms to succeed, Walker knew where to start.
Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most pro-union president that ever was or ever will be, saw the inherent conflict of interest in forming unions for public-sector employees. Union bosses channel union dues to candidates who will take care of them. “Collective bargaining” consists of union representatives sitting across the table from elected officials who have a duty to represent the interests of taxpayers. But when those officials land in office in large part thanks to union clout — and are therefore beholden to unions — whom are they actually representing? It’s ironic that progressives are so worried about the Koch brothers’ supposed efforts to buy government for their own personal profit. Buying government for their own personal profit is part of the whole purpose of a public-sector union, especially once unions’ political contributions are thrown into the mix.
Walker’s reforms allowed him to avert public-sector layoffs and balance the budget, even with $2 billion in tax cuts. They also allowed local governments to fix their finances. Wisconsin is now the only state in the country with a fully funded state pension fund. That’s why Walker’s opponent in the recall never pledged to reverse the reforms, which prompted many to ask what the whole point of the recall was to start with.
I stop by a “county breakfast” in the old Swiss-immigrant town of New Glarus, where Walker is helping serve breakfast to hundreds of county families. The event is held on the farm of Don Roe, a prominent local farmer. Roe tells me that in pushing his public-sector reforms, Walker had no choice but “to go for the whole enchilada.” If you try to appease the critics, he explained, they won’t vote for you anyway, so why bother? “It took a lot of guts to do what he did,” he says. “But it had to be done.”
Walker makes little pretense of being an academic — he never graduated from college — but it is hard to deny his intelligence and keen political intuition. “I am sometimes asked if I hate government,” says Walker. “I don’t. I hate government that is too big and government that does not work.” That is precisely the right position, in terms of both political philosophy and political economy. Walker’s emphasis on good government that works for everyone has broad appeal, and it helps explain why he has won five city and state elections in a row.
Walker has also been helped by a shadowy network from outside the state that has expended enormous effort on Walker’s behalf — namely the Democratic government of neighboring Illinois, which has been busy ruining that state in spectacular fashion. During the recall, Walker was invited to address the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “If voters in our state want to know the difference between going forward or backward,” he told the audience, “they need only look at the mess that you have in state government here in Springfield to know what it would be like if the recall ultimately prevails.” He won the recall by a margin as wide as Obama’s in Wisconsin — seven points — thus demonstrating that at least some significant fraction of Obama voters is crossing over to vote for Walker.
Walker knew that if he pushed reform hard, his poll numbers would suffer in the short run. But he also knew that other reform-minded governors — John Engler in Michigan and Mitch Daniels in Indiana — had seen their polls numbers tank early on, only to recover dramatically by the next election. “The reason Engler and Daniels won is simple: Their reforms worked,” Walker wrote in his short memoir, Unintimidated. “I knew our reforms would work as well. That is why, when my approval ratings dropped to 37 percent, I was not the least bit worried.”
Recent polls appear to vindicate his hopes. Walker’s approval rating is up to 47 percent, near the 50 percent mark that almost guarantees reelection for an incumbent. His opponent, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Facing a primary challenge on her left in the form of quirky state representative Brett Hulsey, Burke fancies herself a fiscal conservative, has refused to say that she would repeal Walker’s reforms, and has not been terribly convincing in her opposition to free trade, considering that her family’s company, Trek Bicycle, outsources 99.5 percent of its production to China and Taiwan.
The results of Walker’s reforms are already evident. Unemployment is back down to pre-recession levels, and the state has gone from a disastrous budget shortfall to a hefty surplus. Personal-income growth has been among the highest in the country under Walker, as has job growth in the manufacturing sector. In 2010, just 4 percent of businesses polled thought the state was on the right track. Now 95 percent do, an amazing turnaround in business attitude.
But have the reforms gone far enough? Wisconsin has created 100,000 jobs and launched 20,000 new businesses, but that is still short of the 130,000 jobs lost and 27,000 businesses shuttered during the recession, and well short of the 250,000 jobs Walker promised to create by 2015. Wisconsin’s job creation has accelerated, compared with 2010, the last year under Walker’s predecessor, but it is still tepid. Private-sector job growth is now the fastest in 20 years, but Wisconsin has been uncompetitive for a long time. Despite Walker’s significant tax cuts, Wisconsin still has among the highest regulatory and tax burdens in the country. Although one survey, by Chief Executive magazine, now ranks Wisconsin as the 17th best state for business, up from 43rd in 2009, Forbes still puts the state at 41.
Walker has not exactly been a spendthrift. The idea that we should “teach people to fish, not give people a fish,” as he tells me, still entails public expenditures. But the areas where he has increased government spending — chiefly on work-force skills training (including a big new program for the disabled) and transportation — are those in which government spending often is a good investment in competitiveness, even by conservative standards. Still, in per capita terms, Wisconsin’s budget is twice that of Texas.
One key litmus test of whether a conservative leader truly understands the danger of progressive policies is whether he supports corporate welfare such as the Export-Import Bank or the farm program. In one of the most heavily agricultural states of the country, the farm program is a delicate subject, but Walker doesn’t flinch when I ask him his views. “If it were a true free-market system,” he tells me, “the vast majority of the farmers in our state would benefit from that.” At the county breakfast, he elaborates on his faith in free trade: “Our farmers do it much more efficiently and effectively than any others in the world.”
Most farmers support the farm program, of course, but support is not universal. When I ask farmer Don Roe about it, he becomes forlorn. “Truthfully we’ve gotten a lot money out of the government,” he says, looking at the ground. “I’m not proud of it. I’d rather get that money out of the marketplace.” He quite rightly traces the problem back to the New Deal and tells me that he would support ending the farm program.
That’s a tough sell, because progressive policies are so well designed to hide their costs from the public. In the fight over collective bargaining, progressives from President Obama on down framed the proposed reforms as an assault on workers’ basic rights. It takes more than a 30-second ad to explain that the “rights” in question are actually special privileges that impose hidden costs on working families, just like much of the farm program.
Walker thinks he can turn his state around by emphasizing good government, not just limited government. He has stuck to his principles, which may be why progressives seem less angry at him than they were three years ago.
Madison has a deeply contagious sense of community. But that is something most neighborhoods in Wisconsin have, regardless of party. In that sense, Walker’s conservatism seems quintessentially native. “It’s about integrity,” he tells me, about being “decent to others, having true compassion.”
The race in Wisconsin is likely to go down to the wire, and the stakes are high. If Walker’s populist message of opportunity for the working class can win here, in the birthplace of progressivism, it might be just the message for 2016.
— Mario Loyola is a frequent contributor to National Review.