I still encounter Democrats who take it as an article of faith that Scott Walker is not that bright. Perhaps they think this because he didn't finish college, or because, after all, he's not a liberal. But Walker has always been on top of the issues when I've interviewed him, and look at how effective he was in the debates against Republican Mark Neumann or Democrat Tom Barrett. Walker is smart, far more articulate than Tommy Thompson was, and has a steely stay-on-message discipline that makes him all the more formidable.
Then there's the argument that Walker's an empty suit, just a tool of evil conservatives like the Koch Brothers. But go back and listen to that recording of Walker talking to the blogger impersonating David Koch. He came off as an almost starry-eyed fan of Ronald Reagan who saw his chance to slay the unions as Reagan defeated the air traffic controllers. Walker may have been influenced by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, but he truly believes in his right-wing agenda, and has been consistent in his philosophy since he was first elected to the Legislature in 1993.
Indeed, Walker has been true to his core beliefs in most policies he's pursued. He's always been anti-union and all but destroyed most public unions in the state. He is pro-voucher and has greatly expanded school choice. He promised to cut spending and reduce the state's structural deficit, and in his first two years reduced it from $3 billion to an estimated $2 million. Yet he has greatly increased state spending for highways and expressways. In both his first and his second (proposed) biennial budget, he has grabbed money from the general fund and cut funding for bus and bike transit to gain more money for highways.
Has any governor in Wisconsin had a more far-reaching agenda? Walker rejected a federal grant for high-speed rail and more recently rejected federal funding to expand Medicaid funding for needy Wisconsinites. He has made the state Department of Natural Resources more sympathetic to business and less concerned about the environment, and has pushed relentlessly for a law to ease environmental restrictions on iron mining. He has reduced the state's commitment to alternative energy, wind and solar, and increased its reliance on fossil fuels.
Is Walker softening his approach with his new biennnial budget? That's what Politico claimed in a recent story lumping him in with activist GOP governors like Rick Scott of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio, suggesting they are all moving more to the center in preparation for reelection campaigns. Sorry, Politico, I think you missed the boat on Walker.
Kasich and Scott both agreed to work with the federal government and Obamacare in expanding Medicaid, but not Walker. Politico mentions Walker's offer to have beer and brats with Democratic legislators, but that gesture hasn't led to any bipartisan compromises. Many Democrats will probably hold their noses and vote for Walker's new tax cut plan, even though 20% of the cuts go to the wealthiest taxpayers, those earning more than $162,000, while just 6% of the tax reduction will go to those earning $38,000 or less. But don't expect to see any bipartisan adjustment of the tax breaks.
After his last biennial budget, which slashed funding for school districts and municipalities, both groups were hoping Walker's second budget would make up some of the difference. Nope. Meanwhile he wants to expand school vouchers to nine more cities and end the residency requirement for cities. The main impact of the latter will be on Milwaukee, whose officials predict an exodus of thousands of middle-class residents that will drive down home values.
Yes, Walker has proposed more funding for state universities, but as part of a plan that pushes them to deemphasize liberal education in favor of more practical-oriented courses that connect students to jobs in the current marketplace.
No, there is not much sign of Walker moderating his views. And why should he? He's won election twice in two years, and is unlikely to face a strong Democratic opponent in 2014. Will it be Peter Barca? Chris Larson? Sorry, that looks like an easy victory for Walker, even if he doesn't create the 250,000 jobs he promised voters in 2010. And his reelection will set up Walker's run for president in 2016.
Political analyst Nate Silver has analyzed the potential candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016 and ranks Scott Walker as far more conservative than Chris Christie or Jeb Bush and slightly more right-wing than Marco Rubio or even Paul Ryan. Walker could enter the primary to the right of every mainstream party candidate, and yet his signature issue, cutting wages and benefits for public workers, has great appeal for many moderates, as he's proven in Wisconsin and Christie has demonstrated in New Jersey.
Earth to the Democratic Party: Scott Walker is for real.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.