Scott Walker’s Legacy: Politics as War

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For me the defining moment of Scott Walker’s governorship will always be the remarkable scene of him  reassuring $500,000 donor Diane Hendricks that Wisconsin would become a red state through his strategy of “divide and conquer.” Occurring early in his first term, that scene made it forever impossible to believe what he said in his inaugural address: “Today, I stand before you – not as the governor of one party or another; or the governor of one part of the state or another. Today, I stand before you as the Governor for all of the people in this State of Wisconsin.” 

It did not have to be that way. When Scott Walker first ran for governor in 2010, he pledged that he would be a tough but fair negotiator with the state’s unions. He said that his economic policies would brand the state as “open for business” and create 250,000 family supporting jobs (in his first term!). He argued that Wisconsin could not be part of a high speed rail network because we needed to take care of our roads. He promised to populate his cabinet with bright, competent civil servants able to make the state bureaucracy work for the citizens.

Even if you did not like candidate Walker in 2010, you had to admit that taken at face value his promises and pronouncements were consistent with conservative platforms of Republican candidates across the country.  With the Democrats running bland Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for governor and with 2010 being a red wave year for Republicans, no one was surprised when Mr. Walker won the election. All hoped for the best, many braced for the worst.

It did not take long to figure out that what Mr. Walker said during the campaign was quite at odds with what he actually had in mind. “Tough negotiations” with unions meant refusing to negotiate at all and in fact rewriting state law so that meaningful negotiation would become impossible. “Open for business” never quite succeeded in getting major employers from Illinois and Minnesota and other places to escape their “Tax Hells” and relocate to Wisconsin, but it did end up committing us to shelling out billions of taxpayer dollars in incentives to a foreign entity (Foxconn) in what could end up as the biggest corporate welfare scam in United States history. Mr. Walker made good on his promise to derail new train routes in Wisconsin, but failed to get the Republican legislature to support any long-term solution for the state’s deteriorating roads. And by his last year in office, four former cabinet secretaries went public with tales of how at every turn, the Walker administration placed political considerations ahead of sound public policy; the state bureaucracy was being used to serve well-heeled donors, not citizens at-large.

Given that Governor Walker lost his bid for a third term, it is tempting to write him off as just one more career hack politician who ultimately placed his own political ambitions and the needs of his donors ahead of The People of the state. Politicians of both major parties have been doing that for a long time. Scott Walker was not the first, and he most certainly will not be the last.

But it’s really not that simple. Leaders leave behind legacies which exert influence on public policy and political relationships long after they leave office. Unfortunately Scott Walker’s legacy is in bringing a “politics as war” mentality to our state that not only makes it more difficult to solve the critical issues facing the state, but actually makes the problems worse and in a twisted way puts our legislative “soldiers” in the position of thinking they will be victims of a political fragging if they dare work with the “enemies” on the other side.

Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes will take office in Madison’s Politics as War culture. Will they be good soldiers? Or will they strike a new tone and try to change the culture of war?

Disturbing evidence of Mr. Walker’s politics as war legacy was plain for all to see this week when the Republican leaders of the Assembly and Senate, Representative Vos and Senator Fitzgerald, announced that they were open to looking at ways to limit the executive power of the governor. Governor-elect Democrat Tony Evers does not even begin his term until January of 2019, yet Vos and Fitzgerald are already drawing up battle lines. Would it have been that difficult for the Republican leaders to say something like, “We strongly supported Scott Walker in his campaign for reelection, and we have deep disagreements with Governor-elect Evers on education, health care, and other issues raised during the campaign. But the voters have spoken, and it is clear that they expect Republicans and Democrats to work through our disagreements and find solutions to the critical problems facing the state. We pledge to work with Mr. Evers and our legislative colleagues on all sides of the aisle in a new spirit of partnership that seeks to please only one special interest: the People of Wisconsin. We urge the governor-elect to make a similar pledge. If he does, he will find us to be ready and willing partners.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald are entertaining the idea of limiting Tony Evers’ executive powers before the governor-elect is even inaugurated.

Actually, it would be too difficult for the Republican leaders to make such a statement. Thanks in large part to the political style Mr. Walker brought to the state, the Republican leaders are painfully addicted to politics as war. From their wartime perspective, Mr. Evers must immediately back away from any stand he took during the campaign: expanding Medicaid, increasing the education budget, dismantling the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. If he does not, we (Republican leaders) will make threats to limit his powers even before he takes office. We will do all we can to defeat his agenda, without even giving it a fair hearing.

I’m not naive, and I don’t expect Tony Evers and the legislative Republicans to hold hands and gleefully resist gridlock in some real life version of a high school textbook version of how government is supposed to work. The problem is not that we have gridlock and ideological clashes–sometimes gridlock and ideological clashes are the barriers necessary to produce creative public policy. But gridlock and ideological clashes can only be positive if the participants are operating in an atmosphere of mutual respect and a willingness to see the big picture. The problem in Wisconsin’s current political culture, and this is Scott Walker’s unfortunate legacy, is the Politics as War mindset that sees partisans on the other side as enemies, ideas represented by the other side as inherently bad and not even worthy of debate, and maintaining majorities by any means necessary as the chief purpose of politics.

If I’m right that the Walker years gave us a dysfunctional Politics as War culture, what do we do about it? There are no easy answers of course, but I think it’s important to recognize that the Politics as War mindset is not going to be transformed top-down; Tony Evers is not going to miraculously change the tone of Wisconsin government overnight. Indeed, Scott Walker and the GOP leaders did not invent Politics as War: in a real sense they merely adopted and co-opted dysfunctional patterns of interaction that have been taking place in communities, workplaces, local governments, and families for far too long. We need to start being better to each other at the local level, so that when a legislative leader acts like a mindless bully he doesn’t look and sound like something that we see every day in different contexts.

While we’re waiting for a new politics to work its way up to Madison from the grassroots, the state legislature will still be playing war games. So how should Tony Evers respond? Mike McCabe of Blue Jean Nation offers one possibility:

If I’m Tony Evers, here’s my message to the #LameDuck #GOP: If you limit the governor’s authority, if you pass anything before I’m sworn in, you set the tone for the next four years. You choose confrontation. If you’re interested in working with me, I’ll work with you. You choose obstruction, and I’ll veto funding for your budget priorities. Vouchers. Gone. WEDC. Gone. You’ll need two-thirds majorities in both houses to override those actions, which you don’t have. For everything you take away from the governor, something will be taken from you.

It’s terrible we’re in a position that requires the legislature and the governor to get off to such a rocky start. But that’s the consequences of Governor Walker’s Politics as War legacy.

What a shame.

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About Author

Tony Palmeri

Tony Palmeri is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh. He teaches courses in rhetoric and public advocacy, freedom of speech, the rhetoric of rock and roll, and the communication career capstone. He maintains a blog called "Tony Palmeri's Media Rants." Tony served two terms on the Oshkosh Common Council and ran for state legislature in 1996 and 2004.

2 Comments

  1. The Civilty Church in Oshkosh lost huge in the election.

    The election was the most negative one in Wisonsin history.

    All those sermons fell on deaf ears. Nobody listened.

    Preaching failed big time.

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