The urgency that has defined the administration of Gov. Scott Walker was on full display at his first State of the State address Tuesday night, not just in the things he said but in the fact that it happened at all.
A blizzard reigned and fierce winds whipped the Capitol -- lighted in green and gold in honor of the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl berth -- as Walker gave his address.
Rational minds had wondered whether the speech (PDF) might be postponed. But the governor would not hear of it, despite the peril it created for audience members who had to travel on treacherous roads to keep their appointment with his sense of destiny.
In some respects, Walker's refusal to postpone made perfect sense. He's a driven man, seemingly heedless of his capacity for miscalculation. His motto seems to be: "What could possibly go wrong?" Or maybe: "What, me worry?" And certainly: "What are we waiting for?"
This is the man who refused $810 million in federal funds for a high-speed rail link and insisted that state employee contracts be renegotiated before he even took office. A man who at his inauguration arose for the swearing in before it was time and raised his hand to take the oath before being asked.
And Gov. Walker, in his first month, has signed into law sweeping changes in state liability law apparently written by the industries they freed from unwanted accountability. He's torpedoed a project to pioneer the use of new biofuels on the UW campus and proposed changes that would cripple the state's nascent wind power industry, sending money and jobs to other states, as with the train. He's moved to seize unprecedented control of state government, to where no agency can pass an administrative rule without his prior approval.
At his address, Walker had a new motto: "We've only just begun." In his 30-minute talk before a "joint convention" of the state Legislature, the new guv laid out a vision of the changes he says will be needed to deal with Wisconsin's "economic and fiscal crisis."
There were the usual accouterments of pomp and circumstance. A prayer delivered by an Assembly rep, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the introduction of the members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court (the lawmakers rose for Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and remained for her colleagues, delivering thunderous applause for two in particular: former Assembly Speaker David Prosser, up for reelection this spring, and Justice Mike Gableman, elected in 2008 in a campaign so dishonest it drew a Judicial Commission complaint).
After some obligatory remarks about the Packers and a video appearance by team president Mark Murphy -- "Win or lose, and we're going to win, we're proud of you!" said Walker, adding the "and we're going to win" to his prepared remarks -- the governor got down to brass tacks.
"I will lay out a clear picture of the state of our state," said Walker. "We will be realistic about the challenges we face while optimistic about our solutions." His main solution: Do everything under the sun to make Wisconsin "Open for business," the mantra of his administration, repeated several times.
Walker elaborated slightly, with this aphorism: "Every action of our administration should be looked at through the lens of job creation."" It's sort of breathtaking, when you think about it. Walker has no stated priorities, or even values, beyond creating jobs. (There was, by the way, not a single reference in his speech to education, or protecting the environment, or public health, or consumer protection, or social issues of any sort.)
After acknowledging that his endeavors thus far are just a start ("We should not celebrate too much the bills that have already passed") he focused on the challenges yet to come, prominently including deregulation -- which, as fans of the BP spill know, has worked out so well on the federal level.
"Our regulatory reform bill will help get government's hands off our job creators," he said.
As for the state's budget crisis, Walker identified the root problem: "entitlement programs and legacy costs" that threaten to "eat up more and more of the operating budget" unless "swift corrective action" is taken. Walker mentioned runaway spending of Medicare, which serves poor people in need, without specifying what he intended to do about it. He also -- no surprise -- took aim at the benefits enjoyed by public employees, at both the state and local level
The way Walker framed it, there is no other way, given the depth of the crisis now confronting the state. (He noted that unemployment WAS actually down quite a bit in December, to 7.5%, but said "that is still 3 points worse than it was three years ago" and hence nothing to celebrate.)
Walker added that because of past fiscal mismanagement, "bill collectors are actually waiting on the doorsteps of our Capitol." As a journalist, my first thought was: "Wow, I should see if they'll agree to an interview!" I notice, though, that Walker added the word "actually" to his prepared remarks. And actually, there aren't any bill collectors there.
Walker said Wisconsin had only two choices: "One is to raise taxes, continue to hinder our people with burdensome regulations, and kick the difficult choices down the road for our children and grandchildren. The other is to do the heavy lifting now and transform the way government works in Wisconsin."
The Republican members of the less-than-packed Assembly chamber led the applause for these pronouncements, at times rising from their seats. The Democratic side was less demonstrative, although even it was drawn to stand on occasion, as when Walker told of how he'd challenged state transportation officials to look for new ways to rebuild the zoo interchange in Milwaukee.
"Our transportation leaders met the challenge and developed a plan that will start the project ahead of schedule and save the taxpayers $600 million," he said. The Republicans rose and clapped so loud and so long that eventually most of the Democrats in the room were shamed into joining them. (One notable exception: state Rep. Joe Parisi.)
Toward the end of the speech, Walker reflected on the elephant in his administration -- his sense of urgency. He noted that a national news organization had asked him "about how fast we are getting to work in Wisconsin." His answer: "I spent the past two years in a job interview with the people of Wisconsin telling you what I would do as your next CEO to get this state working again.
"As you know, I was pretty specific on our plans and ... I saw no reason to wait a year, or six months or even a month to get to work. Now is the time to take action."
But one wonders if there maybe is a downside to acting as though only quick, decisive and radical change can save the state from otherwise certain ruin. Just as the man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, maybe the governor who begins in full crisis mode is creating a need and an expectation of crisis.
Could anything possibly go wrong with that?