Scott Walker’s Wisconsin
He’s been a warrior for reform in the birthplace of progressivism — will voters reward him?

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)



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.

Despite his placid warm smile and unfailing neighborliness, the typical Madisonian proves capable of remarkable anger when a conservative crosses his path. In Madison, conservatives have a comically nefarious image, close to that of SPECTRE in the James Bond movies. Even their leaders are shadowy super-villains — the Koch brothers — who are to progressives what the German banker-philanthropist Jacob Goldschmidt was to the early Nazis. 

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.

Little had changed a century later, when the previously unknown Scott Walker proposed public-sector reforms in Wisconsin. Progressives struck back with furious anger, heaping scores of death threats on conservatives and their families; comparing Walker and his supporters to Hitler and the Nazis; physically intimidating conservative officials and their families at work, at the grocery store, and in front of their own homes; and invading the state capitol in a large horde of protesters who harassed and spit on conservative lawmakers, and disrupted democratic procedure, for nearly six weeks.

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.