An Interview With Scott Walker
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made a name for himself nationally by taking on the unions in Wisconsin and winning the battle. He has out a new book about the experience called, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge. In addition, because Walker has proven to be a successful conservative governor of a purple state, he would be considered one of the frontrunners if he decides to run for President. Will he throw his hat in the ring? It’s too early to say, but if he’s re-elected in 2014, Walker could conceivably be the candidate to beat in 2016.
What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Outside of Wisconsin you are most famous for taking on the unions in your state; briefly tell us what you did legislatively and what the impact of it has been on the state.
The easiest way to explain it is we had a choice.: In the past the big union bosses had been in charge of both state and local government.: We made a change that ultimately put the hard working taxpayers back in charge and by that, what I mean is under the old system of collective bargaining, not only the state but local governments had to abide by union contracts that many times were run contrary to the best interest of the taxpayers and to the people they newly elected.: So we came in early 2011, we faced a big budget deficit, $3.6 billion per capita, one of the biggest in the country — and we knew to balance our budget we weren’t going to raise taxes, we weren’t going to do massive layoffs, we weren’t going to cut things like Medicaid.: Instead we put in place these long-term structure reforms that put the power back in the hands of, again, of the hard working taxpayers.
By pulling back on collective bargaining we empowered local governments, school districts, counties, cities, towns, villages, and the state to go out and control and not only get things like reasonable pension and healthcare contributions which were nowhere in line with the private sector, but they got to change work rules and everything else as part of running a government.: We went from a $3.6 billion budget deficit to today we finished our fiscal year off with just shy of a $760 million surplus.: We cut taxes a billion and a half and an unemployment rate that was once 9.2% is now 6.3% — : so we’ve had some positive results and we’re going to keep on that path.
Yeah, that’s an amazing record.: Now even despite that, there were a lot of people on the other side, politically, who were very unhappy about what you were doing.: You were demonized, not just in Wisconsin, but all across the country. You were the biggest, baddest Republican in the whole country.: Tell us about some of the abuse and threats that you and your family suffered as a result of that because it is really amazing some of the things that were aimed at you.
It seems almost like an eternity ago, but on February 11, 2011 — almost three years ago, we introduced our reforms.: By the next week, 14 of the state Senate Democrats had left the state — much like our Democrat leaders down in Texas years ago in redistricting.: They did it in this case because of our reform.: They left Wisconsin and went to Illinois and that bought them some time and it went from just thousands of just in-state protestors to within a few weeks to as many as 100,000 protesters in and around our state capital.: Obviously many of them had come in from far beyond the borders of Wisconsin. They were initially bussed out from Chicago — but eventually from New York and New Jersey and Washington and Nevada and elsewhere — and that’s not just speculation on our part; we saw the signs.: We saw the banners, we saw the hats and the jackets that would say this union or that union from other parts of the country.
……And the protestors themselves were pretty intense, but it was beyond that.: The protestors would shout me down; they would shout down lawmakers at events.: They would not allow people to speak.: It eventually got to the point where I and even some of our Senate Republicans in particular got death threats.: I got threats against me probably a stack high from the ground.: As I point out in my book Unintimidated, we had one of the most egregious ones, one that I got right before I went into a press conference.: It was directed actually at my wife, pointing out that a governor had never been assassinated before in Wisconsin, but that she should start paying attention and that they not only were going to target me, but maybe they’d start thinking about my kids.: It talked about where my kids went to school at the time, it talked about where my wife works, where my father-in-law lives, and where my parents were at.
There was another one that talked about threatening to gut my wife like a deer.: My kids were targeted on Facebook.: There were just all sorts of horrible things.: Now I counter to that and this is one of the positives I mentioned in that book Unintimidated is that for every one of those, there were eight or nine or ten more others who — when I would go out around the state to farms and factories and small businesses, who literally come off the line and would tell me that they and their families were praying for us.: So that’s what sustained us throughout it all.
Well, people appreciate courage.: Thank you.: There are a lot of Republicans across the country who appreciate what you did, too.: I think you set an example for a lot of people.: Now Barack Obama is simply not enforcing the immigration laws we have in place today.: That is more of a national issue than a Wisconsin issue, but realistically does it make sense to come up with some sort of grand deal where we change legal status for illegal immigrants in return for tougher laws when the laws we already have are being ignored?
No, I don’t think it makes sense to have a grand compromise.: I think part of the problem is that right now in America we don’t have a legal immigration system that works. I mean that from two different standpoints — not only from the standpoint of enforcing the law against folks who are in this country from any other place.: : So many people focus in on Mexico, but it could be Germany, it could be Australia, it could be Canada, it could be anywhere, but the federal government doesn’t enforce the laws that are in place. They’re just kind of overlooking them.
At the same time the federal government is also failing in the sense that they don’t have a legal system that works appropriately — meaning that people who want to come to this country, they want to live the American dream.: They want to work hard, they want to do the same sort of things that our ancestors and so many others before them came into this country for — to work hard with self-determination.: You know, what’s great about America is we’re one of the few countries left in the world where you can.: It doesn’t matter what class you were born into, it doesn’t matter what background your parents had; in America anyone has the opportunity to do just about anything they want.: The opportunity is equal.: The outcome is up to the individual and that should be an aspiration we should encourage.
The problem is, again, with the federal government, is they have such a horrible bureaucratic system that someone that wants to come to this country legally finds tremendous barriers and time constraints to do that. My sense is that instead of spending all this time trying to work out some grand compromise or a deal, we should fix the legal immigration system.: Enforce the laws so that people that are coming here legally, make a process that is a reasonable and timely process so that if people want to come here, if they want to come here for all the right reasons, if they want to be makers, not takers, we should find a way to get them into the country just like somebody — today’s Americans and their ancestors did for generations before.
But it is so typical of Washington that they spend all their time and focus about people who are already here illegally instead of saying maybe we should fix the very system itself — the legal system that isn’t working today.
Tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing in your state to deal with Obamacare.: You’ve done something very innovative there.: Let us know what you think of the program as a whole and give a little advice to Republicans in D.C.: Should they insist on full repeal?: Should they go some other direction?: What do you think, Scott?
I campaigned both in 2010 and again even in my recall against Obamacare. : I don’t think the government should play a direct role, not only at the federal level, but even at the state level. I think individuals and families should be making those decisions and so ultimately my goal is to get to a patient-centered system where the government doesn’t play a direct role in terms of defining benefits or things of that nature. Consumers, patients get to drive that.
What we’ve done to fight it though is from day one.: The first day I took office, January 3, 2011, I gave our Attorney General the authorization to join the federal lawsuit.: I rejected a state exchange or a partnership and that looks like a wise decision every day since we see the mess with the Obamacare rollout.: I did not take the Medicaid expansion for two reasons.: One, I think it will expose taxpayers in my state and other states to tremendous unforeseen costs when the federal government reneges as they have so many times before the reimbursement — but more importantly, my objection is I don’t think adding more people to Medicaid is of itself a good thing. My goal is the opposite.: I want to transition people from government dependence to true independence.: I’m still optimistic enough to believe that most people in America, including some who are on assistance today, don’t want to be.: They understand that the American Dream is not fulfilled by the mighty hand of the government.
It’s empowered by giving people the freedom and the dignity that comes from work, the ability to control their own destiny and that ultimately leads to more freedom and prosperity.: What we’re doing in the meantime until the federal government makes those sorts of changes is something kind of creative.: We did not take the Medicaid expansion and yet we didn’t just say no to it either.: We found a way, thanks to the only part of the Supreme Court decision I like, which freed the states up to do what they want with the Medicaid is for the first time in our state’s history, everyone living in poverty will be covered by Medicaid.
Maybe I’m old school, but I always thought that Medicaid was supposed to be for the poor — and so we cover people with poverty, many of whom even under a previous Democratic governor were on a waiting list.: Everyone living above poverty will now be transitioned into the marketplace with the idea being that long-term my goal is to get these people off the government and transition them off of government assistance and get them comfortable being in the marketplace and the workplace.: So we have fewer uninsured, everyone living in poverty covered, those living above poverty transitioning and we don’t expose the people of our state to the higher costs that I think other states are going to face because of the Medicaid expansion.
But long-term for the last part of your question: what should they do in Washington?: : Two quick things: one, I don’t think any Republican should relish the failure of Obamacare.: The failure has left a lot of people kind of in no man’s land slipping between the cracks.: I think instead of relishing the failure that many of us predicted, what we should be doing is sharing in the frustration that most Americans have with it and then showing them that we’ve got a positive, viable alternative that’s not based on more government.: It’s based on putting patients in charge, giving them the ability to purchase plans across state lines, giving them the ability to have the same tax benefits whether they buy their health insurance through their employer, whether they buy it in the market, whether they go off and do something like a health savings account.: The government shouldn’t be treating them differently when it comes to tax advantages.: Health care should be something that we control, not something the government controls.
So you think we should repeal and replace it with a patient-centered system?
Absolutely, yes.: To be specific, I think you’ve got to get rid of everything with Obamacare.: The whole thing is a mess and I think for the handful of pundits that say, well, what about this, that, or whatever, there are little tiny components like you said, like opening up the access over state lines or things like that, that could be done — but I think it should be very limited and I’m not an advocate of going back to the old system.: I think you repeal it and go the opposite direction.: I think the old system was too bureaucratic and had too much in government intervention.
I think you make it as wide open as possible.: You give patients as many choices as possible and then you let people determine their future.: One of the examples I often give talking about healthcare is most Americans, probably like our family, know more about their cell phone coverage than they do about their health insurance.: I’ve got an 18 and 19-year old son and for years they’ve had cell phones.: I knew early on I had to get unlimited texting or I’d be in the poor house.: Yet most Americans don’t know much more than what their deductible is on their prescriptions or how much of a co-pay they have to pay for a doctor visit.: They have no idea what the true costs and implications are of their healthcare choices and so to me I think you go the opposite direction and you make it as transparent as possible.
You have patients in the driver’s seat and then I think all of us, myself as a consumer as well as everyone else, then we’re going to be more actively engaged — not just in what we do for healthcare but how we manage things like diabetes and high blood pressure and overall wellness.: All of those things are things that are going to be much different if the patient is in charge and not the government and not even some of the private sector bureaucracy, but the patient.
In your book you encourage Republicans to do something important that the GOP, much to its detriment, has gotten out of the habit of doing.: You said we should champion the vulnerable.: Talk a little bit about that, talk about why that’s important for Republicans to do.
Yeah, one of the things that frustrates me so much in the Presidential election is I thought there was a tremendous lost opportunity — and obviously the clearest example of that was when Republican nominees talked about the 47% and also in a similar conversation talked about not worrying about the poor because the poor had a safety net.: That really, truly doesn’t match where I’m at.: I don’t think it matches with people like Ronald Reagan who was a great inspiration for me as a kid.: I went back in the book and talked about how Reagan in 1980 at the National Convention in Detroit in his acceptance speech talked about things like saying if you’re living in poverty, we want to lift you out.: If you’re living in despair, we want to be hope, but that hope isn’t based on more government.: It’s based on empowering people with the skills and the talents and the abilities that they need to go out and control their own lives and so I think the message is really simple, I believe, and I think this was the missed opportunity.: I believe the president and his allies in Washington in particular measure success in government by how many people are dependent on government, by how many people are on Medicaid, by how many people are on food stamps, by how many people are on unemployment.: That’s why they want to extend unemployment benefits.: They want more people signed up, more people dependent.: I think we as Republicans should measure success by just the opposite — by how many people are no longer dependent on the government, not because we’ve got to be careful to articulate this correctly, not because we don’t care about people or because we want to push people out to the streets, but because we understand that true freedom and prosperity don’t come from the mighty hand of the government.: It comes from empowering the people to control their own lives and their own destiny.: One example that I give in the book that I’ve talked about before is we made a change in food stamps that said if you want to get food stamps, if you don’t have kids, you’re an adult in our state and you want to get food stamps, you’ve either got to be working part-time or you’ve got to be in one of my employment training programs, and I said it’s simple.
I don’t want to make it harder to get government assistance.: I want to make it easier to get a job and we’ve got to show people. : I think any of us who either have our own households or who have friends who have sons or daughters who are in their 20’s, they’re at college and at some point you say to your son or daughter eventually in their best interest, “Hey, it’s time to move out of the house.: It’s time to get your own job and your own place.”: That’s not about being heartless and cold.: That’s just the opposite.: It’s about you love your kids so much you want to get them out and help them get on their own two feet so they can have the pride that comes from work in controlling their own destiny.
….And that’s the message that we’ve got to get out to people — that the Left, they want you under their thumb.: They want to control you.: They want to control your lives.: They want you to be dependent on the government.: We should say we’re the ones, not only for the poor, but for young people coming out of college, for working class families, for immigrants, for others out there.: We should say we are the ones who empower the American Dream.: We’re the ones who say you can do and be anything you want, but it’s because we empower you with the ability and the platform to do that.: Then it’s up to you to make that happen.: The other side tells you they want to help you, but in the end they want to keep you limited in how far you can grow.
We want to make sure everyone’s a part of the recovery.: We’re not going to leave anybody behind, but we’re going to do it by empowering people to control their own lives and destiny.
Last question: now you had some very interesting things to say related to that about what happened to Mitt Romney’s campaign.: Talk a little bit about that: what do you think went wrong with what seemed to be a prime opportunity for the Republican to defeat a weakened incumbent.
It was, I mean, it’s so frustrating.: I mean, you think in modern American history we’ve never had someone running for re-election with an unemployment rate so high that ultimately won the election. I believe Mitt Romney is a good man.: I think he would have been a good president, but I think he was mis-served by many in his campaign, many of whom believed, I think incorrectly, that Ronald Reagan won under similar circumstances almost exclusively on the idea that the question was making the election an referendum on Jimmy Carter.: In fact, I quote the famous line that Reagan used, “You’re better off today than you were four years ago.”: The problem is the Romney camp thought that was the entire focus of the campaign.
They failed to see that Reagan’s campaign…… that statement was the closing argument in one of the last debates.: It was a way of wrapping things together, but his campaign was much more than just being against Jimmy Carter.: It was much more aspirational and Americans could see — and to this day 33 years later — you can still look back and say that and vote for Ronald Reagan. : I remember, I was a teenager, had just become a teenager and voted for Ronald Reagan — limited government, you know, smaller government, lower taxes, strong national defense.: You knew what you were getting.: You knew how a Reagan administration, a Reagan presidency was going to be better for you.
Mitt Romney could have done that and I remember the day after my recall election, at one of the interviews a national anchor asked me, “Can Mitt Romney win?” and I said, “Yes, he can win in a swing state like Wisconsin if he shows the voters that the “R” next to his name doesn’t just stand for Republican, it stands for reformer — somebody who’s going to reform things and make people’s lives better.”: Instead they made their campaign entirely about not being Barack Obama and because no one knew how their life would be better and I think it opened the door for Obama’s campaign to come out and define that “R” next to Mitt Romney’s name as not being just Republican, but it meant rich guy who only cares about other rich guys.: I think that was a huge disservice, but that’s what happens when you fail to make your case positively, affirmatively — make your case about how life will be better if they elect a Republican.
Governor Walker, I really appreciate your time.
Thank you, John.: Have a good one.
Once again, Scott Walker’s new book is called, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.