A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge
“Today, we can sound like conservatives and act like conservatives—and still win elections. Those who say we can’t don’t see what I see in Wisconsin and what my fellow governors in states all across America see. We don’t need to change our principles. What we need is more courage.”
In 2011, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s chances of staying in office looked bleak. Angry protesters—furious about his collective bargaining proposal—swarmed Madison, camped in the capitol, and attempted to block the passage of the governor’s reform legislation. Teachers unions accused him of sabotaging education. His approval numbers fell to the basement, and with the national media’s descent on Wisconsin, liberals denounced “Dead Man Walker.” He found himself fighting for his reforms, fielding death threats, and facing an unprecedented recall election.
But then something happened. Walker’s policies began to work. His constituents realized they were better off with his leadership, and in June 2012, he became the first governor in American history to survive a recall attempt, winning with a higher share of the vote than he had for his original election.
In Unintimidated, Governor Walker tells the story of his fight to save Wisconsin from a $3.6 billion budget deficit while simultaneously improving the state’s schools and public infrastructure. He describes how he stood for his convictions against enormous political pressure and personal attacks. He explains how he knew his reforms would work, based on his experience as a local official.
Speaking from the perspective earned from his resounding victory, he outlines lessons conservatives on the national stage can learn from his success, such as:
• Change the polls, not your principles.
• Don’t accept the false choices presented to you.
• You can reform entitlements and survive.
• Austerity is not the answer.
• Never stop reforming.
Walker is living proof that conservatives need not move to the center to win. He argues that Republicans must offer Americans big, bold, positive solutions for our nation’s challenges—and have the courage to implement them. Walker has shown that even President Obama will back down when faced with reforms promoted with common sense and courage.
“If It Can Happen in Wisconsin, It Can Happen Anywhere”
If you are like me, the view from Washington, D.C., these days is pretty grim.
Barack Obama has been elected to a second term. Obamacare will not be repealed anytime soon. Congress has approved massive tax increases. The national debt is on track to double during Obama’s presidency. We are experiencing the worst economic recovery America has ever had.1 Family income has plummeted, and more than three quarters of Americans are living from paycheck to paycheck.2 Over twenty million Americans still cannot find work or have simply given up trying. And the Congressional Budget Office projects that we won’t return to full employment until the end of 20173—a year after President Obama leaves office.
Worse, a recent study by Rutgers University found that six in ten Americans believe that the nation’s economy has “undergone a permanent change” and that today’s dismal economic situation is the “new normal.”4
Think about that: Our citizens are poorer, our debt is larger, our growth is slower, and our people are less hopeful than at any time in recent memory—and a majority of Americans have come to expect and accept this sorry situation as “normal.”
Yet President Obama has laid out a second term agenda that doubles down on the failures of his first. And Republicans are being warned that they should not even try to stop him. The GOP, we are told, is increasingly out of touch with the American people. Our once center-right country is moving center-left. We are told that the only way for Republicans to avoid electoral annihilation is to stop opposing President Obama, abandon our conservative principles, and make peace with big government.
Depressed yet? Don’t be.
Things may look hopeless in Washington, D.C., but from where I sit in Wisconsin, the view is decidedly more hopeful and optimistic.
Here is a little-reported fact: Outside the Washington beltway, big-government liberals are on the ropes, while conservative reformers are winning elections and policy battles in state houses all across the country.
Consider some encouraging data:
• At the time of this writing, not one incumbent GOP governor has lost a general election since 2007.
• Quite the opposite: In the last four years, Republicans have picked up governorships from Democrats in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, Maine, and in Wisconsin.
• The number of GOP governors has risen since 2008 from twenty-one to thirty—just four short of the all-time high of thirty-four Republican governors in the 1920s.
• When Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, Republicans held just 3,220 seats in state legislatures across the country. Today, two election cycles later, the number is 3,826—a net gain of 606 seats.
• In the 2012 elections, when President Obama was overwhelmingly elected to a second term, Republicans saw net gains in thirty-four legislative chambers, including chambers in nine states won by President Obama: Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin.
• When President Obama first took office, Republicans controlled just sixteen state houses of representatives and twenty state senate chambers. Today they control twenty-eight and twenty-nine, respectively. And they hold veto-proof majorities in sixteen states—a gain of three during the 2012 election that sent Obama back to the White House.
• Four years ago, Republicans controlled both the legislature and governor’s mansion in just eight states. Today, the number is twenty-three—and nearly half our citizens live in states where both the legislature and the governorship are in Republican hands.
Does this sound like the record of a party that is out of touch with the priorities of the American people?
So the question is: Why are so many Republican governors and state legislators winning elections at a time when national Republicans are faring so poorly?
The answer, in part, is that while Washington remains locked in endless battles that most Americans don’t see as having much impact on their daily lives, Republican leaders at the state level are offering big, bold, positive reforms that are relevant to the lives of our citizens.
In Washington, politicians fight over “fiscal cliffs,” “debt limits,” and “sequesters.” In the states, we are focused on improving education, caring for the poor, reforming government, lowering taxes, fixing entitlements, reducing dependency, and creating jobs and opportunity for the unemployed.
Just look at what some of our nation’s Republican reformers have accomplished at the state level:
In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels inherited a two-year deficit of $800 million,5 and left Indiana with a $500million annual surplus and $2 billion in reserves, without raising taxes.6 He ended collective bargaining for state employees, privatized Indiana’s toll roads, and created the largest school choice program for low-income students in the country.
In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal took on his state’s long history of corruption and enacted comprehensive ethics reform that restored integrity to state government—while at the same time closing a $341 million budget shortfall and giving $1.1 billion back to the hardworking taxpayers across his state over five years.
In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie enacted a 2 percent cap on property taxes, passed public employee pension and health benefit reforms that will save taxpayers more than $130 billion over the next thirty years, balanced four budgets without raising taxes,7 and gave taxpayers $2.35 billion in job-creating tax cuts.8
In New Mexico, Susana Martinez became the first Latina governor in United States history, and turned a $450 million budget deficit into a $200 million surplus.9 In Michigan, Governor Rick Synder closed a $1.5 billion deficit while lowering personal income taxes and eliminating the state’s job-killing business tax.10 In Idaho, Governor Butch Otter passed legislation in 2011 that restricts collective bargaining for Idaho schools, institutes merit pay, and eliminates teacher tenure.11 And there are countless other examples.
Here in Wisconsin, we are doing our part as well. When I took office in January 2011, our state faced a massive $3.6 billion budget deficit and a stark choice: We could raise taxes or lay off more than ten thousand middle-class government workers to close the gap, or we could reform the corrupt system of political cronyism and collective bargaining—in which union bosses collected involuntary dues from every government employee, and had effective veto power over any changes to their pay, benefits, or working conditions—that was driving our state into fiscal ruin.
We chose reform. The state legislature passed my budget repair bill, known as Act 10, that requires public workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to their pensions (up from zero for most) and to pay
12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums (up from about 6 percent). We ended collective bargaining for everything except base wages. We ended compulsory union membership, and stopped the forced collection of union dues—allowing teachers and other public workers to choose for the first time whether they wanted to join the union and pay dues. And we freed school districts from the stranglehold of collective bargaining rules—allowing them, for example, to buy health insurance on the open market and hire and fire teachers based on merit for the first time.
Today, thanks to these reforms, the $3.6 billion deficit we inherited has turned into more than a half-billion-dollar surplus.12 School districts across Wisconsin have saved tens of millions of dollars—money they have used to offset state spending cuts and improve education, instead of laying off teachers. Property taxes dropped for the first time in over a decade. Unemployment is down. Our bond rating is solid. For the first time in state history, we set aside money in two consecutive years for the rainy day fund. And Wisconsin’s pension system is the only one in the country that is fully funded.
Seems like common sense, right?
Well, the union bosses in Washington and Madison didn’t see it that way. They understood that our reforms were the leading edge of a national grassroots movement for fiscal reform—a movement that is flying below the radar of the mainstream media, but which holds the hope for a bold conservative resurgence across America.
They understood the threat this grassroots movement posed to their entrenched interests. So they decided to fight back.
And they made Wisconsin ground zero in their counteroffensive.
Why did they pick Wisconsin to draw their line in the sand? In part,
it was because of our state’s “progressive” history. Wisconsin was the birthplace of public sector unions in 1936, and the first state to allow collective bargaining for government employees in 1959. If the union bosses could not stop collective bargaining reform in the state where collective bargaining began, they had little hope of stopping it anywhere.
I suspect they also figured that Wisconsin was favorable political ground. The state has not voted for a Republican president since 1984, and Barack Obama won here in 2008 by a comfortable fourteen points. Moreover, our capital, Madison, is kind of the Berkeley of the Midwest (former governor Lee Dreyfus once called it “thirty square miles surrounded by reality”). In other words, there were plenty of students, teaching assistants, and leftover sixties radicals available for mass protests. It must have seemed like a natural place to push back, score an easy victory, and send a clear message to would-be reformers across the country: If you dare to take on the public sector union bosses, you will be writing your own political epitaph.
But ultimately, the unions took their stand in Wisconsin because of the unprecedented nature of our reforms. We did not simply go after the money—the lavish benefits the unions had extorted from taxpayers over the years. We dismantled the entire system of corruption and cronyism by which the unions perpetuated their political power and dictated spending decisions to state and local government. We took the reins of power from the union bosses and put the taxpayers back in charge.
The big-government union bosses knew that if they did not stop our reforms in Wisconsin, the floodgates of change would open across the land. Other political leaders, emboldened by our success, would summon the courage to enact similar changes in their home states—and eventually in Washington, D.C.
The unions could not allow that to happen. The precedent we were setting in Madison had to be stopped. As one protester lamented to the Los Angeles Times, “If it can happen in Wisconsin, it can happen anywhere.”13
So they threw everything they had at us. They mobilized some one hundred thousand protesters to take over the Wisconsin State capitol in a sit-in that helped give birth to the Occupy movement.14 They transported agitators from Illinois, New York, Nevada, and other states; banged drums and blasted horns day and night; harassed and spit on lawmakers as they made their way through the capitol; and turned our historic rotunda into a theater of the absurd. They picketed my home and those of Republican lawmakers, harassed our families at school and even at the grocery store, and shouted us down at county fairs and ceremonial events across Wisconsin—all in an effort to intimidate us.
When their intimidation tactics failed to deter us, fourteen Democratic state senators fled the state—abdicating their constitutional duties in an effort to deny us a quorum needed to even take up our reforms.
When we found a way around their obstructionist tactics, they turned to the courts to stop us—targeting a good and decent Wisconsin supreme court justice for defeat simply because they thought he would vote to sustain our reforms.
When that judicial coup failed, they tried to recall six Republican state senators, guilty of no official misconduct, simply because they voted for our reforms.
When that effort failed to put the senate back in Democratic hands, they tried to recall more Republican senators. They tried to recall our lieutenant governor. And they tried to recall me.
Despite everything they threw our way, we pressed forward with our reforms. And the results are there for all to see: Wisconsin is back in the black. Our economy is growing. Business is expanding. Jobs are being created. Taxes are falling. Educational opportunities are improving. The legislature remains in Republican hands. The state supreme court has upheld our reforms. So have the federal courts.
And I became the first governor in American history to beat a recall. As my wife, Tonette, likes to point out, I’m the only governor elected twice in the same term.
This book tells the story of how we won the battle for Wisconsin— the reforms we put in place, the mistakes we made, and the lessons we learned. In the pages that follow, I will discuss how we almost lost the “fairness” fight in Madison—and how we turned it around on the Democrats and their union allies. I will explain how we reached into President Obama’s base and won over the “Obama-Walker” voters in Wisconsin—and how conservatives can do it anywhere in the country. I will demonstrate how we balanced our budget while rejecting the dour politics of austerity—and found a way to make fiscal responsibility hopeful and optimistic. I will show why it is a myth that winning the center requires moving to the center—and why the path to a conservative comeback lies not in abandoning our principles, but in championing bold, conservative reforms . . . and having the courage to see them through.
I firmly believe that the lessons we learned in Wisconsin can help conservatives win the fight for fiscal reform in Washington, D.C., and lead the way to greater prosperity for people all across America.
Our opponents in Madison were right about one thing: If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can do it anywhere—even in our nation’s capital.
“This guy Walker is one of the gutsiest, toughest, strongest, [most] committed guys I have seen in Republican politics in a long time.”
“Governor Walker’s principled leadership and common-sense reforms are moving Wisconsin in the right direction.”
“He had the courage to take it on, even when it got ugly, and he never stopped.”
—Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina
“Results matter. And that, more than anything else, explains why Scott Walker won.”
—Stephen Hayes, The Weekly Standard
"Most books by incumbent politicians are not worth the paper they never should have been written on. If, however, enough voters read Walker’s nonfiction thriller, it will make him a — perhaps the — leading candidate for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination."
—The Washington Post
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