"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and The Wisconsin Way

I heard Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker interviewed on the Rush Limbaugh show yesterday.   Rush was out, and his guest host was Milwaukee's own Mark Belling, who is a very good, very funny conservative talk show host here, and for the last few years has often subbed for Rush.  

Something Walker said really struck me -- he talked a lot less about the ideology of conservatism and more about "results."   His most famous accomplishment to date as Governor (less than a year) was, of course, pushing through a budget bill that both balanced the state budget (changing a two year deficit of $3.6 billion into a surplus of $300 million) and changed the political dynamic of local budgeting by eliminating collective bargaining for public employee benefits.   Benefit packages (retirement and health care) have been destroying the budgets of local governments for years, as teachers' unions and public employees' unions have negotiated ever-higher benefits to be paid for by their neighbors' ever-higher taxes.   In fact, Wisconsin has been essentially the nation writ small, as fewer and fewer private sector workers pay higher and higher taxes so that a larger and larger number of public sector workers can retire earlier with better benefits than the plebes can ever hope for.

Walker changed that, and there have been almost immediate results.   Just one example:  for years the teachers' union ran its own insurance company and wrote into local contracts that the health insurance for teachers in particular school districts could only be purchased through the WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council).   WEAC, as a monopolist, did what monopolists do -- it jacked up the prices to confiscatory rates.   Now, however, school districts are free to get health insurance at any company and (voila!)  they are saving millions.  

And Walker did all this without raising taxes.

The point is that Walker is not an in-your-face conservative; he's a results-oriented Governor and executive who happens to also be conservative.   But he doesn't stress the conservatism, he stresses the results.  And he does it with a fairly light touch rhetorically; while the Left in Wisconsin vilifies him in over-the-top protests, he coolly keeps on message about low taxes, balancing the budget, giving local governments the tools they need to balance their budgets, limiting regulations, bringing back jobs to Wisconsin, etc.   And he always knows what he's talking about.  It's a good model.

Similarly, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is not an in-your-face conservative; he comes off as a nice guy, a reasonable guy, because he is, in fact, a nice guy and a reasonable guy.   He also always knows what he's talking about with regard to the federal budget -- that's why Obama really really didn't want to have him run for President, because he knew he couldnt' debate him.   Ryan simply sticks on message:  low taxes, low regulations, reducing the size and intrusiveness of government, balancing the budget, reforming entitlements.   It's not ideological, or at least it's not overtly ideological.   As much as I hate the word, and hate the connotations of elitist social engineering, Ryan, like Walker, is essentially a technocrat.   He's talking about doing real things to get real results.   He's not talking about impossible dreams of a suddenly conservative utopia in America.

Why does Wisconsin produce conservatives like Walker and Ryan who are results-oriented rather than purely ideological, and who are nice guys who exude reasonableness and competence?   I think the reason has a good deal to do with how split Wisconsin is as a state politically.   We are a 50-50 state with extraordinarily close elections every four years for President.   (We might have had a recount in 2000 and 2004 if it had come to that.)   We had a recount just this year in a Supreme Court race (the Prosser-Kloppenburg fiasco).   It's a very, very evenly divided state, so Republicans who want to win and govern end up having to appeal, not just to conservatives (as they might be able to get away with in Utah, or Nebraska, or Oklahoma, or Alabama, or Kentucky), but also to independents who, while not thinking very much or very deeply about politics, will invariably vote for whomever they think can make their lives better, i.e., for tangible results.  

Ace at Ace of Spades made a similar point about Rick Perry yesterday.   Perry is an in-your-face conservative, but he also has results he can point to, namely, the fact that Texas leads the nation in job creation.   People are voting with their feet to move to a Texas led by Rick Perry.   That's pretty persuasive to independent voters, even those who might not like Rick Perry's Texas style or evangelical conservatism.   Here's the general point Ace made:
I want a fairly strongly conservative candidate. But, in order to persuade voters who do not share my philosophy, I want that candidate to have a record of non-ideological achievements, things that no one can argue aren't good, in addition to his ideology.
That gives you two chances to win a vote, rather than one. The ideological conservatives in a general election will choose, obviously, the more ideologically conservative candidate. Against Barack Obama, it's safe to say we get most of these.
But the less-ideologically motivated voters will not necessarily vote for the more-conservative candidate. They might; then again, they might not.
Having no strong ideological preference for a candidate, they will base their vote, as they always do, on non-ideological factors.
Charisma. "Seems like a regular guy" (which is in fact code for "not super-ideological like many of the professional politicians I, as a disengaged independent, tend not to like"). Experience -- reassurance that when it comes to the non-ideological skills of management, a candidate can actually work the basic functions of an executive office.
And, most important of all, actual positive results of a non-ideological sort.
Walker has all of these.   He's a "regular guy" -- he actually lives in my hometown of Wauwatosa.   He's got real experience as an executive -- he was Milwaukee County Executive for eight years before becoming Governor.    And he is producing tangible results.  

Call it "the Wisconsin Way."   National Republicans should take note.

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