Scott Walker has been labeled as more “Nixonian than Nixon,” but he has emerged as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination at this early stage. Converting once-progressive Wisconsin’s frozen tundra into a low-wage Mississippi of the North has been the mission of Wisconsin Governor Walker since his election in the GOP sweep of 2010. And the zealotry displayed in his battle against public-sector unions has propelled him into the ranks of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. More than any other of the large crop of true-believer Republicans elected in 2010, Walker has succeeded in transforming his state into a laboratory for testing corporate-tilted and punitive policies.
Walker’s free-market fundamentalism and unflinching efforts to crush labor and prioritize the demands of Big Business has delighted corporate donors across the nation. This support has ranged from his long-time loyal sponsors, the mega-billionaire Koch brothers, to the more mainstream Fortune 500 firms like 3M, Millercoors, NestlePurina, FedEx, and Kohler—all of which benefitted with subsidies from the Walker administration.
Walker’s reign has been adopting the government model prevalent in the South, under which, as Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor put it, “the focus is on creating a competitive place to locate businesses, so the premium is on investments in benefits for corporations and on keeping wages relatively low. Worker rights, social services, even education take a back seat to ‘job creators’ under this model—which critics denounce as a race to the bottom.”
The support of numerous major executives for Walker’s role in Wisconsin reflects a growing shift to the right among globally-oriented CEOs who are losing their traditional concern over domestic buying power (and thus their tolerance for union rights) and a skilled workforce educated from taxes paid by corporations. With cheap manufacturing and professional workforces available in low-wage nations like China and Mexico where labor rights are not recognized, major corporations now see no need to assume any tax burden to pay for public education or other public services. In offshoring jobs, major corporations have transferred the U.S. Southern model—low wages, repressive anti-unionism, and massive corporate subsidies from impoverished citizens—to the Global South. According to Mary Frederickson in her important book Looking South, “New South industrialization presaged much of what we are witnessing in the Global South.”
“Their [leading CEOs] vision has shifted some, and is reflected in Business Roundtable statements,” observed G. William Domhoff, author of the classic, recently-updated Who Rules America? and the recent The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy: Corporate Dominance from the Great Depression to the Great Recession. Domhoff regards the Roundtable as the central institution reflecting the political views of Corporate America. “They want to trim Social Security and keep opening up the world to offshoring production and increasing trade.”
However, Walker’s closeness to the Kochs—regarded even by many Republicans as occupying the outer edges of conservative politics—could possibly require Walker to provide more reassurance to some mainstream executives that he is not pursuing a reckless agenda which could ignite needless political instability, as he did in Wisconsin. “I think the Business Roundtable is at the center of the ‘Republican establishment,’ but that it has plenty of opposition on some issues from its right,” said Domhoff. “Walker may be too tied to Koch for them.”
Perhaps to align himself more fully with the establishment, Walker has recently been expressing his concern over poverty and calling for an extension of unemployment insurance, even while demanding more stringent conditions on jobless benefits and opposing a higher minimum wage.
But while Walker has felt a need to waver from his cultural fundamentalism, expressed in his support for some of the nation’s most stringent measures against abortion and other issues involving reproductive rights, he continues to provoke rapture among social conservatives who are a key part of the GOP base. Walker has also long advocated an aggressive defense of the U.S. empire and was an early and vocal advocate of the war in Iraq.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato placed Walker as the top potential 2016 GOP contender in his closely followed Crystal Ball website. Nick Carey of Reuters reported, “Walker has a lot to prove, but he looks good on paper,” said Crystal Ball managing editor Kyle Kondik. “There are a lot of questions about how he will perform as a national candidate.”
In a piece promoted with the teaser of “Walker’s Wild Ambition,” The Daily Beast’s David Freedlander anointed Walker in these terms: “Scott Walker Is the Perfect Republican Candidate for 2016 (on Paper).”
While Walker’s anti-labor and anti-democratic measures have placed him on the extreme right, he is regarded as “mainstream” by today’s Republican standards. For example, MSNBC-TV political commentator Chris Cillizza described Walker as acceptable to the “Republican Establishment,” reflecting the class war mentality of corporate CEOs who make up the party’s donor class.
Walker’s rise in prominence has been directly tied to the recent sinking fortunes of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. With a new set of pay-to-play scandals besieging Christie, Walker has gained new stature as a Republican who can claim sufficient crossover appeal to win in a Democratic state (Wisconsin has voted for Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1988).
The names of a number of potential candidates have been bandied about, including Senators Ted Cruz (TX), Marco Rubio (FL), and Rand Paul (KY), as well as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former 2012 primary candidate Rick Santorum, and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan—the GOP vice presidential candidate in 2012. But many of these candidates are regarded as less than stellar by top Republicans.
Cruz’s hard-edged style and his ill-fated push for a government shutdown last fall, disastrous for Republicans, cost him points. Rand Paul’s hard-line conservatism contains an unpredictable libertarian streak (e.g., opposition to U.S. military interventions, urging the legalization of marijuana, and calling for a light sentence for NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden) that marks him as unreliable for a significant segment of Republican donors and voters. Perry’s miserable performance in the 2012 debates raised questions over his competence, and Santorum’s religion-driven politics suggests that he cannot reach beyond a limited base.
Ryan, however, has remained popular among both big donors and grass-roots conservatives. He continues to get largely uncritical treatment from the mainstream media. In some recent polls, Ryan has emerged as the front-runner two years out from the primaries and Walker’s fellow Wisconsinite may turn out to be one of his most serious competitors. But during one of his appearances on a TV interview show, Walker not so subtly tried to undercut potential congressional rivals like Ryan by insisting that the Republicans should nominate a governor who is not tainted by congressional Republicans’ reputation as representing the party of “no.”
Meanwhile, Walker is plunging ahead, writing a book, touring and speaking widely, making the rounds of political interview shows on national TV and, of course, meeting with potential donors. He also made the national circuit to promote his book, Unintimidated, his revisionist history of the Wisconsin labor fight of 2011-12, which was written by former Bush aide Marc Thiessen, an ardent advocate of torture as a technique to be used by the U.S.
In the book, Walker and Thiessen unashamedly torture the truth on key issues. For example, Walker continues to be “unintimidated” by reality in maintaining that a phony 2011 budget crisis forced him to restrict union rights, when the actual deficit was small and Walker pushed through new corporate tax breaks depriving the state of more revenue. Walker similarly denies that he had considered using provocateurs “to rile things up” among thousands of thoroughly peaceful protesters—a point he made at least twice in 2011.
In a November 21 piece penned for the Wall St. Journal, Walker boasted, “In the wake of the 2012 elections, Republicans are being warned once again that they need to compromise their principles to win at the ballot box; that the only way to win the center is to move to the center. If this were true, Barack Obama would not be president today and I would not be governor of Wisconsin.”
These claims drew ecstatic responses from some key Republican players. “Walker is the type of leader who is the future of our party,” said Fred Malek, a Republican fundraiser and activist.
Some observers assert that Walker must grow significantly to command a large and dedicated national following that he can translate into the Republican nomination. He is generally regarded as an uninspiring speaker who projects as a hard-line conservative with a mild tone, but fails to ignite his audiences. “On the stump, he doesn’t look like a champion or a villain; he has all the color and charisma of an accountant,” observed Time (6/5/12). He is zealously on message, repeating talking points almost to the paragraph.”
Walker also lacks a college degree, which is regarded by much of the public as a qualification for any major public office, much less the presidency. He left Marquette University in Milwaukee after a stint that included his run for student government president, marked by his backers dumping thousands of copies of the student newspaper containing an endorsement of his opponent. But Walker’s intelligence and strategic shrewdness have often been underestimated by his opponents.
Further, Walker has shown an extraordinary ability to collect massive amounts of campaign contributions and to deliver the policy changes they seek. “Gov. Walker’s biggest asset is his fundraising prowess,” stated Scot Ross, director of the Madison-based research and advocacy group One Wisconsin Now. “How many other potential presidential candidates have been out there on such a ceaseless cross country fundraising bender? Many of the right’s biggest Super PAC funders may have given individual contributions to other candidates, but none of them received five- and six-figure contributions from all of the major donors like Gov. Walker did when there were no limits to unspeakable amount of money he was able to raise.”
Walker’s Woeful Wisconsin Record
However, Walker also faces big liabilities, such as his home state’s huge job shortage; his signing of bills for severely restricting abortion; his support for voter suppression; and the fallout of two grand-jury investigations of his staff and his campaign funders. Walker has also spurned major injection of federal funds from the Obama administration for a major rapid-transit project and Medicaid funds based on the Affordable Care Act, which Walker has fiercely opposed.
Particularly stunning is Walker’s inability to add jobs to the state he has governed for the past three years. Most notably, Walker has failed pitifully in trying to meet the central pledge of his 2010 campaign, overseeing the creation of 250,000 jobs that were to be achieved through expanded corporate tax incentives and the whittling-down of the public sector. Corporate subsidies, already lavish, have been supplemented by some $1.6 billion in new corporate tax breaks enacted under Walker. These tax breaks are coming at a time when 62 percent of Wisconsin corporations with revenues of $100 million or more pay no corporate income tax to the state.
Walker also privatized the state’s economic development efforts under the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, but the WEDC has proven incapable of tracking whether its subsidies have actually resulted in the creation of jobs that corporations promised, as documented by Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First.
While the flow of “incentives” has become a gusher for corporations, the promised jobs have not materialized, Walker’s Wisconsin has ranked as low as 49th in job creatio and, most recently, stands at just 37th based on data compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When the state’s increase in population is figured in, the actual “job deficit” is at nearly 145,000, according to a recent report by Tom Beebe of the Center on Wisconsin Strategies, a think tank located at UW-Madison. “Wisconsin still has fewer jobs—7,600 fewer jobs—than in 2007 before the Great Recession,” Wisconsin’s population has grown since then. Just to keep up with that growth, Wisconsin needs to add another 97,300 jobs. These two numbers together—144,900—account for the current Wisconsin job deficit.”
Walker and his allies have frantically tried to shift the spotlight away from the 250,000 figure that he highlighted again and again throughout his campaign. Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch has claimed “100,000 jobs and nearly 13,000 new businesses have been created since we took office”—-a tacit admission of how far the Walker administration has fallen short.
Despite his pledge of going all-out to increase jobs, Walker has spurned massive amounts of federal money on two fronts—mass transit between Milwaukee and Madison and healthcare spending via increased Medicaid available under the “Obamacare” Affordable Care Act—that would have both met pressing needs and generated thousands of new jobs.
Displaying his long-standing opposition to mass transit in line with conservative doctrine, Walker turned down $810 million in federal funding for a high-speed mass-transit line between Milwaukee and Madison, now separated by 80 miles of often-clogged freeway. The project, approved by his predecessor Democratic Governor James Doyle, would have spawned thousands of jobs constructing the rail line and stations, building equipment, and assembly of rail cars. Further, the rail line would have helped isolated communities hit by deindustrialization to revitalize their economies.
While Walker claimed that the project would have cost the state as much as $7.5 to $8 million annually, transit experts estimated the state’s share at just one-tenth of that. Walker’s move, undertaken in late 2010, ignited outrage in the context of deep economic insecurity created by the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and ensuing crisis. “We’re giving away $810 million that will go to some other state and we’ll be losing out on anywhere from 4,700 to well over 10,000 jobs,” fumed then-State Senator Spencer Coggs. Even worse, Spanish train manufacturer Talgo shut down its Milwaukee operation after Walker’s decision.
Walker also turned down extensive federal funding to expand Medicaid in Wisconsin because of his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, with negative impact on the health of low-income Wisconsinites and the potential for job growth. Moveon.org notes that Wisconsin stands to pay $119 million more for Medicaid while 77,000 lose coverage on April 1, thanks to Walker’s rejection of Medicaid funds provided by Obamacare. Last year, a study by Families USA and Citizen Action found that $2.44 billion Medicaid funding rejected by Walker would have generated “about 10,500 family-sustaining jobs in health care.”
In contrast to Wisconsin, the state of Minnesota utilized economic strategies based more heavily on public-sector development under a Democratic-controlled state government. Thus, Minnesota has a per-capita income which is $4,500 higher, American Federation of Teachers President Michael Rosen pointed out.
But the power to effectively mobilize for progressive policies has been severely undermined in Wisconsin by the grievous wounds inflicted by Walker through Act 10. Public-employee unions—rendered powerless in terms of collective bargaining by restrictions like pay raises limited to the rate of inflation, the narrowing of bargaining to exclusively wage issues, and the elimination of dues checkoff—have suffered massive losses in membership and revenues.
The statewide teachers union, the Wisconsin Educational Association Council, “has lost roughly 50 percent of its 98,000 dues-paying members since Walker signed Act 10,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The Wisconsin State Employees Union’s membership has plummeted from 22,000 state workers to roughly 9,000-10,000 members. The WSEU and three other AFSCME councils, according to the Madison Capital Times, have seen their combined revenues fall by 45 percent in 2012, with dues sliding by 40 percent.
“While Democrats did very well in the November 6 election [in 2012], union households represented the smallest share of the Wisconsin vote in at least 20 years—21 percent, according to exit polls,” Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calculated.
As a result of these reversals produced by Act 10, labor’s imprint on politics has been severely diminished in several ways. First, the big drop in membership has diluted the strength of a voting bloc within the Democrats that is firmly committed to fighting inequality and the offshoring of U.S. jobs fostered by free-trade agreements favored by the neo-liberal elites of the party, exemplified by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Second, the capacity of unions to foster collective debate, form positions, and inspire political action among hundreds of thousands of working families has been eroded as workers have become isolated from political discussion without their unions. Third, the ability of labor union members (and the Democratic Party which has so heavily dependent on union activists to serve as electoral foot-soldiers) to reach out to non-union workers has also been commensurately shrunken. Finally, labor’s drop in revenues has weakened its ability to field lobbyists to counter the influence of vast armies of corporate lobbyists in Madison.
Thus, where Wisconsin had been a leader for the past century in passing pro-worker legislation on safety, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, and public employee rights, 2014 finds the legislature debating a Republican bill that would permit employers to return to 19th century working conditions by expecting seven-day work weeks from their workers—without overtime.
As with his ideologically-driven, costly moves on mass transit and Medicaid, Walker’s administration has been characterized by reactionary, anti-democratic policies to entrench rightist forces politically and enable them to inflict damage on the bottom 99 percent and the environment while effectively muffling the voice of opponents. The following are among the most crucial.
VOTING RIGHTS: In 2011, Walker signed a “voter ID” law that Common Cause director Jay Heck called “the most restrictive, blatantly partisan and ill-conceived voter identification legislation in the nation.” The law would have restricted the vote of sectors of the population, who lack photo IDs and the means to easily obtain them, including 23 percent of the elderly, 59 percent of Latina women, 55 percent of African-American men overall, and 78 percent of African American men who are 18 to 24 years old, as well as many college students. After the law was rejected as unconstitutional, the rate of voter participation hit a record 87 percent in the overwhelming Democratic city of Milwaukee during the 2012 presidential election. Obviously displeased, the Republican-dominated Legislature and Walker have passed a new watered-down version of the law, which the new law is also being challenged in court.
REDISTRICTING: Wisconsin provides a classic illustration of a systematic effort to provide the Republicans with exaggerated strength in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the State Legislature. In the state Legislature, the Democrats stacked up 174,000 more votes than the Republicans in Wisconsin legislative races, yet the electorate wound up with an overwhelming 60-39 Republican majority. These outcomes are the result of the 2010 GOP takeover in Wisconsin and 11 other states, which gave the GOP a virtually unrestrained hand in setting up new districts. Using a highly secretive and expensive process that has consumed $1.9 million taxpayer funds and incurred repeated judicial criticism and with substantial fines of the Republicans’ attorneys, the Wisconsin Republicans were permitted to set up new districts that vastly over-inflated their actual level of public support and failed to reflect voter sentiment.
ABORTION AND WOMEN’S RIGHT: Most recently, Walker signed on to a Virginia-style law requiring women planning an abortion to undergo an intrusive vaginal ultrasound test. While the law has been overturned in the courts, Walker’s record has deeply offended women. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin described his policies in harsh terms: “One of his first actions after taking office was to cut funding for women seeking cancer screenings, birth control, and health exams at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. He then quickly moved on to repeal equal pay protections for women, end comprehensive sex-education guidelines for our schools, slash essential BadgerCare [a state-run insurance program for low-income residents] coverage for two state budget cycles for hundreds of thousands of hardworking Wisconsin citizens, and pass numerous restrictions on a woman’s ability to access safe and legal abortion.”
At the same time that he has been heightening already-considerable opposition from unionized workers, women, and people of color—while striving to limit their ability to act effectively—Walker has made tax cuts of some $504 million a centerpiece of his 2014 run for reelection. Predictably, the income-tax portion of the plan is regressive, giving the top 20 percent of earners 44 percent of the reductions, with the bottom 20 percent getting just 5 percent. Although many Republicans argue that it will leave the state with a structural deficit of about $725 million in the near future, Walker has relied on the effective conservative pitch to taxpayers: “It’s your money.” More importantly, Walker’s latest budget proposal would restore only a tiny portion of the $800 million in public education cuts enacted in the last budget.
For the moment, Walker seems entrenched, given his ability to overwhelm opponents with tidal waves of campaign spending. In 2012, for example, he raised as much as $60 million, enabling him to maintain a constant TV presence with ads that skillfully softened his image. He was thereby able to overcome a recall campaign that had collected over 900,000 signatures, almost 80 percent of his 2010 vote total, by converting donations from billionaires like the Koch’s and Sheldon Adelson into his barrage of TV ads.
But labor and progressives are now hoping that he has exhausted the public’s patience with his failure to meet his promise of 250,000 new jobs. The spurning of federal funds for mass transit and healthcare, the aroma of scandal constantly surrounding him, rising inequality, and extreme abortion legislation that exemplifies the Republican “war against women.”
Democratic candidate Mary Burke, former CEO of the Trek bicycle company and a Madison School Board member, has emerged as the only Democrat willing to take on Walker. Labor and progressives have to swallow hard to get behind Burke whose Trek firm engaged in offshoring jobs to China under tenure.
Thus far, Burke has also shown an inability to forcefully hammer Walker on his most vulnerable positions like his failure to generate 250,000 jobs, his costly rejection of Medicaid funds and his budget plan which would leave the state with a large future deficit. But these remain major vulnerabilities and could be aggravated by the public perception that Walker is neglecting Wisconsin with his constant out-of-state appearances while pursuing his dream of the White House.
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer on labor issues and a labor studies instructor for Rutgers and the University of Illinois ([email protected]).