Scott Walker: Playing to Win

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Haley Sweetland Edwards,

from TIME Magazine,

He changed the rules of the political game as Governor of Wisconsin. Next up, the nation.

Walker, who has leveraged his image as a union buster to become something of a national hero to the right. After leading early polls in Iowa, he has become a front runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Over the past four years, Walker has slashed corporate taxes, shrunk the number of people eligible for Medicaid and food stamps, expanded school voucher programs, made it harder to get an abortion and signed a concealed-carry law for firearms. That conservative hit parade has earned Walker national accolades, the confidence of the Republican base and access to financial support from conservative heavy hitters. But even those policy achievements have been outshone by his political ones.

Walker is on the national stage today because he figured out not just how to excite Republicans but also how to harm Democrats. In the past four years, Walker has quietly dismantled one of the Democratic Party’s main sources of power, organized labor, in a state that helped birth the labor movement. During the first two years of Walker’s tenure, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 48 saw its membership collapse by two-thirds and its reported income wither from more than $7 million in 2010 to $650,000 in debt by 2013, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal. The Wisconsin State Employees Union has lost 60% of its members and watched its budget plunge by two-thirds, to just $2 million a year, according to executive director Marty Beil.

Meanwhile, Walker has signed a new election law, which has yet to go into effect, requiring all voters to show photo identification at the polls, a move that can depress turnout among Democratic constituencies. He has also overseen a redistricting plan that is likely to keep the statehouse red for a decade. In 2012, the year after his Republican legislature redrew the electoral map, state Republicans lost the popular vote by a 7-point margin but won majorities in both houses.

Walker’s staff insists that such political gains were not intentional but a happy side effect of the governor’s “big, bold reforms.”

That sort of talk has his foes eyeing his meteoric rise with both awe and fear. Here is a man who, in less than six years, went from being the Milwaukee County executive to a national conservative star. Will he be able to harness that power and bring his unique brand of politics to the national stage? “He’s been very effective at doing exactly what he wanted to do,” says representative Peter Barca, the Democratic leader in the state assembly. “It’ll take decades to undo the damage he has done.”

Some attribute Walker’s focus to his personal relationship with God. Both in his memoir, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, and in speeches to conservative crowds, Walker explains how he prays before making major choices, like the one to run for governor, and for help standing by “tough decisions that were not always popular.”

“He finds strength in God’s strength,” says former Wisconsin senator Dan Kapanke, one of Walker’s strongest allies in his first term. But Walker’s critics say his faith feeds his sense that he’s justified in ignoring competing voices. “He feels tremendously that he is right, and why compromise at all when you know you’re right?” Wasserman says.

On the early presidential campaign trail, Walker has dismissed any suggestion that his rapid rise is the result of tactical decisions, casting himself instead as a guileless good guy willing to go to war for what he believes is right. Before Republican crowds, he tells war stories about protesters descending on the capitol and threatening his family. One particularly disturbed man, he says, promised to “gut his wife like a deer,” a detail that reliably elicits gasps of horror from the crowds.

Walker’s theme, in a nutshell, is a new turn on an old conservative cliché: with a little grit, Republicans need not compromise to win. “If you’re not afraid to go big and go bold, you can actually get results,” he told the crowd at the Iowa Freedom Summit.

But tracing the actual impact of that radical policy shift is tricky. In many districts, for example, the money that schools have been able to save by renegotiating contracts has not kept pace with the state’s deep cuts to K-12 education, says Kim Kohlhaas, president of Wisconsin’s American Federation of Teachers. “It’s a good-news, bad-news story,” says Charles Carlson, who has worked as a consultant to Wisconsin’s public employers for four decades.

The state’s economy is also struggling. While Walker promised in 2010 to deliver 250,000 new jobs by 2015, he’s fallen about 40% short of that goal. Wisconsin–once a Midwestern powerhouse–has had a slower job growth rate than any other state in the region except Illinois. Due largely to tax cuts under Walker, the state could face a $2 billion shortfall in its projected budget, according to the left-leaning Wisconsin Budget Project.

Since Walker came in, …, the playing field has changed, and she is not sure how it will get resettled or what Walker will be able to do if he makes it to the White House. “The unions are what fund the Democratic Party. We bankroll them,” says LaFleur, a former union negotiator, between sips. “If we don’t have an organization, if we don’t band together, they’re going to suck us dry.”

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