When Scott Walker first thought about running for governor of Wisconsin in 2005, I was working for then-Gov. Jim Doyle. Walker spent several months riding around on his motorcycle trying to explain how his experience guiding Milwaukee County to the brink of fiscal collapse (he was county executive) was just the thing Wisconsin needed in the state house. Eventually he dropped out, saying it was “God’s will” that he not run.
Four years later, he’s governor. His move to strip many state workers of their collective bargaining rights has drawn national attention. Conservatives are hailing his bold leadership. He’s managed to put himself, at least for a day or two, at the center of the political universe.
Heady days. But if history is any guide, he should enjoy them while they last....
Remember 1995? Back then, Newt Gingrich was enjoying his own Walker moment. He had led Republicans to a 52-seat victory in the House in 1994. He was elected speaker. He had unveiled a legislative blueprint for his party that was roundly hailed by conservatives as in the best tradition of Taft, Goldwater and Reagan. [See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]
But it pretty much went downhill from there. Instead of solidifying Republican gains he substituted hubris for clarity of judgment, forcing a pair of government shutdowns, handing nine seats back to the Democrats in 1996, and by many accounts, almost singlehandedly ensuring that Bill Clinton would win re-election to the White House. When he left the speakership and Congress in 1998 he was a deeply unpopular figure.
Today, Republican ranks are filled with little Newts: politicians who are reading their election as carte blanche to put even their most conservative ideas into action. But it seems as if they’ve learned only the first part of Gingrich’s biography, not the second.
Take Walker. When he announced his state worker plan he said: "We are broke in this state. We have been broke for years. People have ignored that for years, and it's about time somebody stood up and told the truth. The truth is: We don't have money to offer.” That may be true. It’s also true that two weeks earlier Walker had pushed a series of bills through the legislature, including tax cuts for businesses and tax breaks for health savings accounts, costing an almost identical amount to what he says the state will save through his collective bargaining plan.
Let’s see: your actions put a hole in the budget, you call it an emergency, and then try to cut workers' paychecks to pay for it. Turns out, sometimes people notice that sort of thing. Just check out the streets of Madison. It seems obvious--but maybe you have to stop reading your own press clippings to see it.
So now Walker has a choice to make. If he pushes ahead with his plan he’s a national conservative hero. But he’s already enraged broad swaths of the electorate, many of whom don’t look anything like the Madison liberals that Wisconsin Republicans love to skewer (for example: prison guards). Some of them probably voted for Walker, but they won’t next time.
If he takes a step back, he will have managed to inflict a serious wound on his governorship, barely six weeks in. And any national aspirations he may be harboring will be over.
That has all the markings of a Gingrichian overreach.
I don’t know what he’ll decide. But last week Wisconsin Archbishop Jerome Listecki wrote in a letter to the legislature “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” Beautifully put.
This is another instance in which Scott Walker would do well to consider some divine words.