Politics & Policy

The Club for Growth Gives Scott Walker Lukewarm Approval

Walker campaigns in Las Vegas, July 14, 2015. (Ethan Miller/Getty)
He’s been pretty good as governor, but as a state legislator he was something of a spendthrift.

The Club for Growth heaps praise on Scott Walker’s work to reform Wisconsin’s labor laws but expresses some serious concerns about his handling of other economic issues before he was governor, and questions whether he sometimes puts political concerns ahead of economic principles.

The criticisms raised in the Club for Growth’s latest “white paper,” a review of presidential candidates’ economic records and positions, are striking, as Walker’s star has risen largely due to his vocal stances defending conservative economic positions. Most of the issues raised by the economically conservative advocacy group are about Walker’s time as a state legislator.

Walker earns a rave review for his successful fight to limit collective bargaining for public-employee unions, and for weathering the recall election that ensued. Calling it “one of the most important and courageous political fights in recent American history,” the Club says it should draw “enormous praise from fiscal conservatives.” Walker, in his campaign announcement Monday, focused a lot of attention on that fight, which launched him on the scene as a conservative star.

For the most part, the Club views Walker’s tenure as governor favorably. But his previous record as a state legislator is a subject of some concern. Specifically, the Club takes him to task for voting for the budgets of then-governor Tommy Thompson, most of which raised taxes and increased spending, the very things it is the Club’s mission to oppose. The paper criticizes Walker’s decision as a state legislator to support BadgerCare, a program that expanded health coverage to people who would not qualify under Medicaid, noting that it effectively expanded Medicaid years before Obamacare did so.

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Since he has become governor, the paper says, Walker “has been remarkably better on taxes,” and he earns praise for eliminating the film tax-credit program and for instituting a law that requires a two-thirds majority of the state legislature to approve certain tax increases. The Club also commends him for borrowing far less than the previous governor, and for using line-item vetoes to oppose spending increases.

But the Club mentions some points in Walker’s gubernatorial tenure that could be problematic for economic conservatives. It faults him for backing a so-called “boondoggle bridge” across the Minnesota–Wisconsin border that would have cost $700 million but been used by just 18,000 cars a day. It also takes issue with his proposal to pay for a new arena for Milwaukee’s basketball team by issuing government bonds. Walker has defended the proposal by noting that the Bucks threatened to leave the state if the project was not approved, but it has drawn criticism from Republicans. The plan was ultimately dropped from the budget, though on Tuesday the state legislature approved an altered plan to fund the arena.

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Walker also raised eyebrows with his public support of the 2013 Ryan-Murray budget deal, which took away some mandated spending cuts.

Some conservatives feel that at times, Walker has altered his positions on certain issues in the name of political expediency.

Perhaps most troubling for Walker is the Club’s contention that parts of his record “raise serious questions about when apparent political considerations may overcome his commitment to pro-growth principles.” The paper points to his recent support for ethanol subsidies, a major economic factor in Iowa, where Walker is campaigning hard to win the caucuses. The Club notes that Walker appears to have opposed subsidies at one time, and suggests it could be a politically driven flip-flop. It also points to his past support for Thompson’s budgets and his “lukewarm approach on right-to-work laws.”

That charge echoes a problem Walker currently faces with the conservative electorate: Some conservatives feel that at times, he has altered his positions on certain issues in the name of political expediency. In particular, his rhetoric on abortion and immigration has sparked some consternation in recent weeks.

#related#On balance, the paper is favorable to Walker, placing him firmly in the middle of the pack of the contenders the Club for Growth has reviewed thus far. It is not as positive as the near-glowing reviews for senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, but neither is it so negative as the evisceration of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s economic record.

The paper puts Walker in the company of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who received a review that was similarly positive overall, but with some pointed criticism. Of both, the Club predicted they would govern “as a pro-growth conservative” as president, but also noted parts of their record that raised concern as to whether that would always be the case.

The Club is leaving itself the option to endorse a candidate for president at some point later in the cycle. If Walker wants to position himself in that running, he will have to demonstrate that as president, he would govern like the union-fighting governor of the past four years, and not like the state legislator he once was.

— Alexis Levinson is a senior political reporter at National Review.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.

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