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Policy: Labor

What Scott Walker learned from surviving his recall election

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Wisconsin,Scott Walker,Elections

During the uproar over his reforms to Wisconsin's labor laws, Republican Gov. Scott Walker got used to shrugging off bad polls. He was jarred out of his complacency one day though when a woman asked him, “Scott, why are you doing this?”

That was because the woman was his wife, Tonette. He had assumed she understood what he was doing, only to learn that she was skeptical, too.

“If my own wife didn’t see why we needed to change collective bargaining, how could I expect the voters of Wisconsin to see it?” he recalled. He then redoubled his efforts to explain his reforms.

The anecdote comes from Walker's recently-published account of his epic 2011 legislative showdown and subsequent recall election, Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge. It isn't the definitive account -- that would be last year's More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker: Unions, and the Fight for Wisconsin, by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Jason Stein and Patrick Marley -- but it is a candid, inside look at Walker's trials.

He draws a lot of lessons from the experience, and not always ones other conservatives will automatically agree with. He is simultaneously a bold, swing-for-the-fences guy and a pragmatic leader mindful that he governs a swing state.

Walker makes clear that he believes public-sector unionism is incompatible with good, effective government. He argues it is inherently corrupt because the unions' political clout makes elected officials indebted to them.

His initial plan was to simply end it in the Badger State altogether. But Republican statehouse leaders nixed this, cautioning that many would see it as an attack on the workers themselves.

Instead, their compromise allowed collective bargaining, but ended automatic dues deduction from workers’ paychecks, required annual union recertification votes and limited bargaining mainly to wages.

“The changes actually improved our bill because they put the unions’ fate in the hands of their own members,” Walker wrote. Many union members apparently appreciated this. Walker won 25 percent of their vote in the 2012 recall.

He warns that “austerity is not the answer.” Simply cutting government is not enough and will actually drive people away in hard times. Walker consistently made the case that his reforms would free up money to prevent government worker layoffs or drastic cuts in services. For example, they enabled Wisconsin schools to competitively bid for health insurance rather than using a union-affiliated company, saving millions.

Picking your battles wisely is another theme. Walker’s reforms were audacious but doable. Republicans had majorities in both statehouse chambers at the time. Even after 14 Democrats fled the state to deprive the GOP of a quorum, all that was needed was a little tweaking to push the bill through.

Turning the other cheek is also advocated. The governor was subjected to a torrent of abuse in 2011-12, but never responded in kind. This enabled him to claim the moral high ground. When he won the recall, he was tempted to use the protester’s chant, “This is what democracy looks like,” in his victory speech — but didn’t. He didn’t want to rub their noses in it.

And finally, Walker was, by his own admission, simply lucky. The state only allowed recall elections after the targeted official had been in office for a year, which gave him time to argue his reforms were working. He would have lost otherwise, he writes. A bitter split between the Democrats and the unions over who would challenge him also helped.

Conservative principles don’t automatically equate to electoral success. To win, he argues, Republicans must present themselves as forward-thinking reformers addressing real problems — and beholden only to the people: “When you set the pace of reform, voters will see you as someone who is constantly trying to make things better. And your opponents will be forced to respond to your agenda rather than setting one for you.”

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