Scott Walker's Political Record of Lies, Deceit, Corruption and Revenge
“More Nixonian than Nixon” is the dead-on description of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, now viewed as a serious contender for the 2016 Republican nomination, in the eyes of former Nixon aide John Dean.
Nixon, the force behind Watergate’s sleazy, secretive fundraising from the super-rich and political dirty tricks, has perhaps met his match in Scott Walker, a governor who would literally delete “the search for truth” from a state mission statement—and then lie about it.
However, when I first met Walker I back in 1996, I would have described him as about the nicest conservative I had encountered in public life. I was lobbying for a progressive coalition, building support in the Wisconsin State Legislature for a campaign reform that would set up rapid disclosure of campaign contributions. Then-state Rep. Scott Walker proved to be an unexpected and enthusiastic sponsor.
Walker was one of the most conservative of Republican legislators, but he was unfailingly respectful and friendly to me as we held news conferences together and strategized over coffee about how to win passage of the disclosure bill. His friendliness and aw-shucks manner seemed to be grounded in his background as a small-town preacher’s son and Eagle Scout.
Beneath the Mask
But beneath the genial exterior lurks a classic passive-aggressive personality, with the aggressive side displaying grandiose ambition, a relentless drive to win at any cost, and a vision of essentially transforming Wisconsin—and then the nation—into a version of Mississippi offering a low-wage, docile, and disenfranchised (via restrictive voter ID laws like the one signed by Walker) workforce, shriveled public services and low corporate taxes.
Alert observers recently saw the essence of Walker encapsulated in his budget plan for the University of Wisconsin. The episode displayed the governor's drive to chain public institutions to serving private power as well as an extraordinary contempt for the truth.
Walker and his team had slyly deleted “the search for truth” from a passage on the University of Wisconsin’s central mission in his budget proposal. Also eliminated were references to the widely revered 111-year-old "Wisconsin Idea" committing the university to “public service.” The “Wisconsin Idea” linking the university to the needs of farmers, workers and other ordinary citizens was a product of Progressive-era leaders like Gov. Robert LaFollette, whose legacy Walker has long sought to undermine.
In place of “the search for truth,” unbounded debate and a public-interest orientation, Walker and his administration assigned the university a narrow, corporatized function of “meeting the workforce needs of the state.” Initially, Walker’s proposed UW budget drew intensified scrutiny because of $300 million in crippling cuts he proposed, which were coupled with other assaults on public education like weakening K-12 public education through more subsidies for private religious schools.
But repurposing the university’s mission touched a deeper nerve. Scouring through the budget, the progressive Center for Media and Democracy discovered and publicized the attempt to reset the university’s purpose as meeting corporate personnel needs. This triggered extensive coverage and an enormous furor arose across the state. The outrage spanned UW students, faculty, officials, alumni, and the broader citizenry.
Walker hastily retreated as public outcry expanded, sheepishly claiming the elimination of “the search for truth” and the beloved Wisconsin Idea was a mere “drafting error.” But that rationale quickly melted down after media reports showing that UW officials had strenuously objected to the rewriting of UW’s mission, but were ignored by Walker’s minions. Walker’s account about dumping “the search for the truth” turned out to be utterly untruthful.
This same pattern—of serving private wealth and power—is expected resurface later this week, as Walker and his Republican-majority statehouse take up “right-to-work” legislation, which exempts employees from paying union dues—hurting fundraising and organizing—even though Walker last fall said that wasn’t on his agenda when campaigning for re-election.
The pending right-to-work battle revives Walker’s venomous war on labor, which emerged in electrifying fashion in a Feb. 11, 2011 address just a month after he became governor. Like a strutting generalissimo, Walker announced that the state faced a “budget crisis” demanded the passage of Act 10, which would eradicate meaningful union-representation rights for most public employees. He did not go after police and fire fighter unions, which have long supported Republicans. In 1959, Wisconsin was the first state to grant such rights to public workers.
Ominously, Walker threatened to call out the National Guard if workers defied his Act 10 proposal with job actions. Walker viewed Act 10 as a move to “drop the bomb” on public employees, as he told his staff, and to politically isolate them with a cynical “divide and conquer” strategy.
However, the public responded quite differently from what Walker counted upon. When the public in Wisconsin and across the nation rallied behind the targeted workers—a mix of teachers, social workers and other civil servants—Walker was forced to escalate his war. Polls found (see here and here) 57% to 60% support for union rights.
Democracy a Casualty
Walker and his Republican allies rammed the bill through, violating both state open-meeting and legislative rules. The Republicans’ victory was also accompanied by a set of undemocratic tactics never seen before in the state, such as shutting off the microphones of dissenting legislators. Walker even admitted in a recorded phone call that he “had given some thought” to bringing in “troublemakers” to presumably stir up violent actions to discredit the thousands of peaceful protesters.
Act 10 was cemented into law when the State Supreme Court predictably affirmed it in a 4-3 vote. However, the mobilization against Walker’s Act 10 carried the fight into 2012 when nearly a million Wisconsinites signed petitions calling for the second recall of a governor in U.S. history. Walker managed to win 52% to 47% in June 2012, with his victory fueled by raising an estimated $60 million in contributions from billionaires around the nation—especially those in the libertarian network created by David and Charles Koch. A lackluster Democratic candidate also helped Walker keep his seat.
The recall campaign also revealed Walker no longer believed that political contributors and their donations should be fully and immediately disclosed—the basis of the legislation on which he and I first crossed paths. A “John Doe” investigation of Walker’s efforts by special state prosecutors into the recall’s shadowy financing showed that he surreptitiously sought to steer donations to his campaign into the “non-profit” Club for Growth, a corporate lobby group. That tactic kept confidential the six-figure donations from out-of-state billionaires.
Corruption, Paybacks and Revenge
The war over Act 10 reflected the political calculus Walker uses to approach any political issue, according to Scot Ross, director of the Madison-based liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.
Ross first observed Walker in action on the Corrections Committee while serving as a legislative aide. “I saw Walker, and wondered, ‘Who is this guy always pushing for longer and longer sentences?’ It turns out that Walker was rewarding the private prison companies who were contributing to his campaigns” by devising laws that would keep Wisconsin’s prisons full.
Wisconsin’s prisons now house about eight times as many inmates as they did in 1970, and the state has the dubious distinction of incarcerating a higher percentage of black men than any other state. Walker’s strategy on prison-related issues exposed his fundamental political approach.
“Walker basically operates on issues by asking himself three questions,” said Ross. “First, how will my position reward my donors? Then, how will it punish my enemies? Finally, he asks himself, how it help me move up the political food chain?”
Walker’s shaping of policies to reward donors has produced a distinct pattern, said Mary Bottari, deputy director of the Center on Media and Democracy, which has studied Walker and his close connections to the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, funded by corporate and libertarian donors, drafts model bills for like-minded legislators to carry in their states and cities.
“Scott Walker has an extremely narrow agenda. He’s picking off a list of deliverables for extreme out-of-state interests,” said Bottari. “None of these items are being demanded by Wisconsinites. He’s failing to serve his state.”
His Wisconsin Record: Dreadful
Walker has failed dismally to meet the most urgent needs of his Wisconsin constituents—jobs at family-supporting wages. He delivered less than half of the 250,000 jobs that he promised through his corporate-friendly tax and regulatory policies. At the time of Walker’s reelection last fall, Politifact reported that the total number of jobs created under his administration was just 111,295. Wisconsin ranked 34th in the nation and dead last in the Midwest in private sector job creation during his term.
Wisconsin’s job growth under Walker has been heavily concentrated in low-wage occupations, which expanded at a much greater rate than mid- and high-paying jobs. If anything, Walker has been the steward of widening inequality. The net job growth between 2010 and 2013 has been confined to low-wage jobs paying under $12.50 an hour, according to a recent study by Marc Levine, a UW economic development professor. Private-sector wages are fully 15% below the national average.
Faced with measurable poor policy results, Walker has sought to direct public resentment over sliding real wages and financial anxieties to the economic system’s biggest victims: the long-term unemployed. “My belief is we shouldn't be paying for them to sit on the couch, watching TV or playing Xbox,” Walker recently said. “We need to get them the skills to get back in the game and get back to work.”
In his new state budget, Walker proposes drug testing for recipients of unemployment insurance, food stamps and other public aid, prompting Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell to accuse him of practicing “yellow politics.” The proposal targets government aid recipients for political points, but is actually quite hollow. Walker knows that similar programs in other states have either been ruled illegal or proven to show a far lower rate of drug abuse among those receiving aid than the general population.
But Walker is running for president. So his agenda has been guided by scoring points with a right-wing base enraptured with confining public-sector services and enhancing corporate profits, imposing punitive social policies and reflecting unwavering faith in the “fewer benefits, higher jobs” formula expressed by financial guru Lawrence Kudlow (a CNBC commentator who champions marketplace solutions to every problem).
Walker has almost gleefully neglected the healthcare needs of low-income Wisconsinites. He remains one of a shrinking group of Republican governors who reject federal funding that would cover tens of thousands of low-income people lacking regular access to care—by expanding state-run Medicaid under Obamacare. Those federal subsidies would provide $345 million toward filling Wisconsin’s budget deficit of $2 billion.
To the delight of the anti-abortion crowd, Walker has terminated state funding of Planned Parenthood, curtailing health screenings and other vital non-abortion services the organization provides.
Thuggish and Proud of It
As he shifts his focus away from Wisconsin’s problems and toward his presidential race, Walker has again illustrated how richly he merits the “Nixonian” label bestowed by John Dean. His early campaign steps are displaying the same deceitful and cynical traits as he grovels for campaign cash.
At a lavish mid-February fundraiser for elite donors at New York City’s posh Club 21, he stood next to Rudy Giuliani as the former mayor issued an infantile, Michele Bachmann-style attack on President Obama’s patriotism. When asked to respond to the remarks, Walker passed up the opportunity to distance himself from the attack on Obama.
Once again, Walker provided a clear glimpse into his quest for power and his craven obeisance to conservative elites. His pandering to the far right will be on display this coming week in Wisconsin, as Walker’s allies in the GOP-majority legislature try to ram through yet more anti-labor legislation: a right-to-work bill, which allows employees in union-represented workplaces to opt out of joining unions and paying union dues.
The bill, based word-for word on language from the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, is due to come up in an “emergency session” timed by Republican leaders. This blitzkrieg strategy is designed to short-circuit full democratic deliberations by the Legislature and consideration of public opinion. It follows a path used in 2012 by Republicans in Michigan, where the GOP simply dispensed with any hearings during a lame-duck session, as well as in Indiana, where Republicans fast-tracked the bill and blocked a proposed state-wide referendum.
Stepping back, it is clear that Walker is positioning himself to be the political water boy for the enormous fund-raising machine led by the libertarian industrialist Koch brothers, who have said they will try to raise nearly $900 million to spend on the 2016 elections. Walker hopes his combative and bullying style will allow him to win the White House and impose a 21st-century version of robber-baron capitalism on America.
As former White House counsel John Dean warned, Walker is “more Nixonian than Nixon.”