Why Walker Won’t Compromise
He now says he will bring us together. But don’t bet on it.
On Tuesday, a throng of lawmakers attended a cookout thrown by Gov. Scott Walker, who suggested a cozy get-together over beer and brats in order to break down the differences between the parties. Yes, this was the new and improved Scottie, the suddenly self-reflective man who has confessed to errors in how he handled collective bargaining and promised to learn from those mistakes.
In his victory speech, moreover, he played the peacemaker, promising a new era for bitterly-divided Wisconsin, which polls showed had become America’s most polarized state under his leadership. “Bringing our state together will take some time,” he declared, “but I hope to start right away. It is time to put our differences aside and figure out ways that we can move Wisconsin forward.”
But the truth is that the new Walker is really the old Walker with a bit more razzle dazzle. Walker has never been a compromiser, and is quite unlikely to change after nearly two decades in office. As a legislator, he was seen by the ruling Republicans as someone who would undercut the agenda of Governor Tommy Thompson and whose first goal was to promote himself. As one former GOP legislative aide once told Milwaukee Magazine, “There was a joke going around: ‘The most dangerous place in the Capitol is between Scott Walker and a hot microphone.”
After winning election as Milwaukee County Executive, Walker soon settled into a mode of refusing to compromise with the county unions and the county board. In eight years as county exec, he used the veto 204 times, or about 25 times a year. His vetoes were overridden all but 65 times, or more than two-thirds of the time. I doubt you’d find an executive in Wisconsin history with a greater percentage of vetoes overthrown, or a greater unwillingness to compromise. It almost never happened for former governors Thompson or Jim Doyle, who would have feared the loss of power it might signal for them.
But Walker was rewarded for his “my way or the highway” style, getting reelected twice as county executive and then using his position as a platform to win the 2010 race for governor.
In his 2010 victory speech, Walker pledged to be the great compromiser, promising “to work together with Mayor Tom Barrett,” to be “the governor of the entire state of Wisconsin,” and to “call a special session of the legislature, Democrats and Republicans alike, to improve the economy… to pass a jobs agenda on our first days in office.”
Wonderful words, but quite misleading. Rather than working first on a bipartisan jobs agenda, Walker went after collective bargaining. Something he’d never breathed a word of on the campaign trail. He had signaled he’d want greater contributions to pension and health insurance for state workers but never mentioned wanting this from teachers or municipal workers. In fact, his aide Ryan Murray wrote a deputy sheriff to assure him that “Scott’s plan (to require higher pension contributions) will apply to active state employees only, not to….teachers and local government employees.”
As for working together with Democrats, Walker passed Act 10 without considering any suggestions from them. As he put it in his telephone conversation with the impersonator he assumed to be conservative tycoon David Koch, “hell, I’ll talk to (Democrats). If they want to yell at me for an hour, you know, I’m used to that… But I’m not negotiating.”
Similarly, with the mining bill he championed (and which mining company representatives largely wrote), Walker refused to compromise even with a member of his own party, state Sen. Dale Schultz, who proposed revisions in the bill. So no legislation passed.
In confessing to errors in how he handled his job, Walker never once suggested he should have considered any compromises on legislation. His error, he’s explained, was not doing enough to explain to the people what he wanted to accomplish. “I rushed in to try and fix things before I talked about them,” as he told people in his 2012 victory speech.
That speech also included lofty pledges to work with Barrett, to work with legislators and bring us together, but he made the same promises in 2010 and quickly broke them. Moreover, those sops to unity in the 2012 speech were all but drowned out by the ringing salutes to his own resolve.
“Tonight we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country, and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions,” he declared. “In times of crisis what has made America amazing has been the fact that, throughout our history… there have been men and women of courage, who have stood up and decided it was more important to look out for the future of their children and their grandchildren than their own political futures.”
This is the real Walker: not the healer who will bring us together, but the unbending idealogue who sees that stance as proof of his courage. True, he is always low-key, always friendly, always the sort of guy you could imagine chatting with over a beer and brat — but that friendliness belies his steely unwillingness to meet opponents half-way or even a quarter of the way when there’s a dispute.
And why should he, when that approach has just won him two elections for governor in two years, bringing Walker national fame as a rising star in the Republican Party? Over and over and over, Scott Walker has been rewarded for an adamant refusal to work with legislators or compromise in any way. So why change now?