Commentary Magazine


GOP’s in a Wisconsin State of Mind

When Newt Gingrich led the Republicans back to power on Capitol Hill during Bill Clinton’s first midterms, the revolutionaries came with a famous to-do list. But the most successful item on that list by far was almost certainly their ability to get welfare reform enacted with a Democratic president. Such congressional victories are rare; this one remains celebrated by both parties. So it was an odd feeling for former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson in 2007 when he ran for the GOP presidential nomination and seemed unable to get any traction with his reform credentials.

Gingrich may have passed welfare reform, and Clinton may have signed it, but Thompson enabled both. No one carried the ball farther down the field on welfare reform than Thompson did as governor of Wisconsin. He also wasted no time in reminding voters that he passed the nation’s first school vouchers program to include private schools. But if Thompson is far from the spotlight, even as these issues crop up once again, he can take solace in the fact that his state remains front and center in just about every major reform fight. In fact, when conservatives talk about states being “laboratories of democracy,” they seem to have Wisconsin in mind.

Paul Ryan has taken the reins on budget issues for the GOP, but his public persona is inextricably tied to his proposed entitlement reforms, especially Medicare. Ryan’s ideas became the Republican Party’s budget. He became a standard-bearer at a level usually reserved for presidential nominees. (When Gingrich slammed Ryan’s proposal as “right-wing social engineering,” he was practically booed and hissed out of the race.) Ryan’s reforms became their own litmus test to see if conservative presidential candidates were “serious” about the country’s fiscal future.

And no one will soon forget the liberal reaction to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s public union reforms–the deepest in the country. To avoid even voting on legislation, Democratic members of the state’s Senate fled Wisconsin to live in a hotel in Illinois. It didn’t exactly do wonders for the Democratic Party’s credibility, but neither did the DNC-organized protests; the nicest protesters compared Walker to Hosni Mubarak, the less generous compared him to–who else–Hitler. In fact, Walker’s reforms were tough but smart, and have provided a much-needed boost to the state’s economy. Fearing the effect of fiscal restraint on their taxpayer-financed largesse, the unions helped organize recall elections for state senators and Walker himself. The GOP survived, and so did the reforms.

And today at National Review Online, Katrina Trinko profiles Reince Priebus, the first-term Republican National Committee chair who has improved the party’s fundraising, kept a lower profile, and stayed more on-message than his predecessor. Priebus is also from Wisconsin.

So what is it about the Badger State? At first glance, Wisconsin might seem an unlikely laboratory for conservative reforms. It hasn’t thrown its electoral votes into the Republican column since 1984–though George W. Bush nearly nabbed the state in 2004. And though it has become more competitive in recent years, that should only make it less given to producing politicians willing to take the political risks Ryan and Walker have. Washington, D.C., isn’t exactly famous for political courage, so reformers take the risk of being demagogued into the ground–having their voters and their caucus scared off. But Wisconsin’s voters aren’t so easily bullied by unions either.

Wisconsin, then, is a peculiar kind of potential swing state. Wisconsin’s conservatives are not only enacting serious reforms, but are encouraging the national party to follow suit. (Compare this with Florida, where politicians walk a very careful line with regard to entitlement reform in an election year.) Is creative conservative reform the path to a Wisconsinite’s heart? Perhaps its liberal leanings have helped. Thompson’s reforms came just as the state was beginning to vote Democratic in presidential elections, and voters seemed to seek some kind of balance–the state hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since Thompson became governor, but it has also only had one Democratic governor in that same time (Walker’s predecessor).

Whatever the reason, the success of Wisconsin’s reform-minded politicians suggests the country isn’t as resigned to a welfare state future as many fear. Even without a candidate in a presidential election year, the state remains at the center–and often sets the terms–of the debate.