In late February, Rep. Paul Ryan, the rangy Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, addressed a group of businessmen in a ballroom overlooking frozen Lake Monona. Down the street, inside Madison’s snow-covered state capitol, throngs of labor activists paraded under the rotunda. They railed, as they have for weeks, against Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s rookie executive, who is tangling with the public-sector unions.
Ryan, a high-profile leader on Capitol Hill, welcomed Walker to American politics, above the fold. “Nobody is really paying attention to what is going on in Washington,” he chuckled. “They are all focusing on Madison these days. It’s pretty amazing.”
Indeed, as fiscal crises brew across the country, eyes have turned toward Wisconsin, where the battle roars. But the state has produced more than a spectacle. A legion of fresh-faced reformers is asserting itself. Along with Walker and Ryan, freshman senator Ron Johnson, freshman representative Sean Duffy, and Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee — all Wisconsonites — are quickly becoming national pacesetters.
Ryan sees Walker’s stand-off with union brass as emblematic of the frank, Midwestern conservatism that has taken hold in the state. “Scott Walker is a straight shooter,” he says. “Wisconsinites are very direct people and he is a product of Wisconsin.”
That may be, but Wisconsin has often shied away from flinty pols. Its recent support of this Republican crop was unexpected. President Obama won the state easily in 2008, taking 56 percent of the vote. The state also has a proud lefty tradition: It was the first state to grant public employees collective-bargaining rights. Former governor Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, a progressive hero, is a towering figure in the history books. Madison, the capital city, is often dubbed the Berkeley of the Midwest.
Yet after two years of “stimulus” spending, rising unemployment, and health-care headaches, Wisconsin seemed ready for a shake-up, sending budget hawks, not Upper Midwestern populists, to Madison and Washington. Many had risen from the ashes of liberal excess.
Walker, for instance, won the county executive post in deep-blue Milwaukee after Democrats were caught ladling themselves plentiful pensions. Duffy, a former prosecutor and reality-TV contestant, took the seat of David Obey, the former House Appropriations Committee chairman, who was a big spender in Congress for decades.
Priebus, who ousted Michael Steele at the RNC, tells me that the party was eager to embrace its opportunity. “The people in the Wisconsin and elsewhere were starving for real, authentic leaders,” he says. “Scott Walker is one of them.” Walker, he says, by taking on the unions early, has set the tone for a new era in Wisconsin, and, perhaps, national politics.
“Walker is not a plasticized politician,” Priebus observes. “He knows that life requires tough choices sometimes” — and that not all things can be compromised. The “Wisconsin style,” if there is one, he muses, is anchored to a commitment to fiscal prudence.
Johnson, a 55-year-old accountant and Oshkosh businessman, agrees. He toppled Democrat Russ Feingold last year, sending the liberal lawyer home to Middleton after 18 years in Washington. It was an unlikely victory. After a life devoted to his plastics and packaging company, Johnson became involved in the Tea Party movement in early 2009, gaining attention for the serious, plainspoken speeches he delivered at Madison-area rallies.
Johnson’s successful entry into politics, driven by his concern for the country’s struggling economy and growing debt, tells us something about the Badger State — and about America’s political moment. The lanky, unassuming business executive cuts a very different figure than the decisive governor Walker or the Beltway power player Ryan. In fact, he’s the aw-shucks antithesis of slick. But Wisconsinites were willing to replace a three-term progressive senator with a political novice precisely because Johnson shares Ryan and Walker’s budget-hawk instincts.
Johnson is proud to be associated with his freshman class and with Walker back home. “Let’s face it, Walker came into office facing a pretty daunting challenge — a $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years,” he says. “He understands the difficulty of labor agreements that are imposed on local governments. He’s trying to return balance to that equation. It’s not easy, it’s hard. But that’s the kind of leadership we need.”
Ryan, who delivered the GOP response to the State of the Union address, hopes the success of this merry band will encourage others in the party to stand by their principles. “When you tell people the truth, that they’ve been deceived by prior politicians, they don’t like it,” he says, reflecting on his crusade against bloated entitlements and Walker’s challenge. “But the more we are honest with people, the more they will respect government.”
Walker appreciates the support. But he is quick to note that he is not the first Wisconsin Republican to skirmish with special interests. In a chat at his capitol office, he recalls how former GOP governor Tommy Thompson, who served four terms, spurred innovative school-choice and welfare reforms. Walker says that if Wisconsin could “set the table” in the Nineties, it surely can do it again. In many ways, it already has.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.