This past week Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was the target of a massive assault by the liberal media that sought to inflate a minor story about his administration as Milwaukee county executive into a scandal that could eliminate him as a 2016 presidential contender. The effort fell flat as the issues involved were insignificant and there was no link between the governor and any wrongdoing. Even a fishing expedition into 27,000 pages of emails revealed nothing more damning than an internal debate about whether a former thong model was a suitable candidate for a job. Liberals may have had a brief moment of elation when they thought this would remove Walker from the 2016 picture as effectively as Bridgegate turned Chris Christie’s presidential hopes to ashes. But Democrats would do well to ignore this distraction and instead take a deep dive into a story published today in the New York Times that centers on the real reason why the Wisconsin governor is so important: fiscal reform.
Though the slant of Steven Greenhouse’s lengthy feature is not so much Walker’s record but an attempt to engender sympathy for the unions he defeated in a 2011 legislative showdown, the governor still emerges as the hero of the saga. Wisconsin’s public-sector unions are telling their colleagues around the nation to worry about other states emulating Walker’s efforts to change the balance of power between labor and government. They’re right. Though Walker paid a high price in terms of vilification and a recall effort that failed to drive him from office, the results of his reforms are now apparent. As the Times reports, Wisconsin’s municipalities and school districts have saved more than $2 billion in the last two years. The nation confronts a future in which the costs of public-sector salaries and benefits could push a host of cities off the same fiscal cliff that landed Detroit in bankruptcy and civil ruin. Though the unions that lost their power to raid the public treasury will never forgive Walker, his courage in standing up to them and achieving results provides a compelling story that could very well inspire a run to the White House.
Not everyone in Wisconsin is happy about what happened there in 2011, when Walker pushed through his reform agenda despite the spectacle of union thugs and left-wing activists that descended on the state capitol in Madison in an effort to shut down the rule of law in the state. As Greenhouse writes, the unions that took for granted their right to run roughshod over state and municipal officials bitterly regret their defeat. They took for granted their right to demand and get pay and benefits that most of the taxpayers paying the bill couldn’t dream about. As Walker learned when he was Milwaukee’s county executive, the name of the game was union power. Budget shortfalls were mere details to leaders who would rather see workers laid off and services to the citizens curtailed than make concessions to balance the budget. If those unions are now demoralized, their regret is that they no longer have the whip hand over the government. Walker’s rollback of union power enabled the those elected by the people to function without the sort of union blackmail that make it impossible for mayors and governors around the country to stand up to threats of strikes and political payback.
Just as important, the changes brought about by Walker forces public sector unions to go back to their original purpose: serving their members rather than playing political power brokers. The provisions that force them to recertify compels the unions to demonstrate to their members that they are there to help them rather than to act as the storm troops of the Democratic Party. This accountability dethrones them as the tyrants of the workplace as well as of the public square.
While other Republicans (including Christie) shared his views about reform, it was only Walker who dared to directly take on public sector unions and their political allies. In 2011, the conventional wisdom was that he was a rash politician who tried to do too much and would fail. But where others made incremental gains at best, by carrying out his campaign promises Walker showed both his party and the nation that it was possible to tell the truth about the fiscal peril, do something about it and live to tell the tale.
Just as they did in 2012 when liberals made Walker’s recall a national priority, the left is once again hoping to end the governor’s career by defeating him for reelection this fall. But if he is favored to win in November it is not just because voters remember the irresponsible efforts of unions and Democrats to thwart reform or because Walker is a likeable and able politician. Rather, it is because he has demonstrated the kind of political courage that is very rare in our system today and produced results. While he is still a relative novice on the national stage and could well falter long before 2016, that is a record that should scare potential Republican presidential rivals as much as it does the unions and the Democrats.