By Stephen F. Hayes
On Aug. 12, 2010, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker munched on a ham sandwich in the backseat of a black SUV and answered questions for an hour as we drove from a meeting with Indian tribes near Fond du Lac back to Wauwatosa. To close the interview, I asked Walker what he would do on his first day in office.
“I won’t wait until Jan. 3. On Nov. 3, I’ll take my chief of staff, my secretary of administration and my budget director, and we’re going to Madison to start taking over the budget, because for the next two years, that’s the most defining thing I’ve got to work on,” he said.
Even Walker couldn’t have anticipated how true those words would be. That work on the budget would come to define not only Walker’s first two years but will almost certainly shape national politics in this important election year.
But it was Walker’s answer to the obvious follow-up question — “What can you do as governor-elect?” — that best explains why his budget reforms worked.
“We’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at this,” he said. Walker had consulted officials involved in the transition for then-Gov.-elect Tommy Thompson in 1986-’87. They explained that they’d had staffers “embedded” into the Department of Administration to facilitate budget work before he officially took office. “They walked us through how to do this.”
So by mid-August 2010 — three months before he’d be elected and some five months before he’d take office — Scott Walker understood that his budget work would characterize his term and he’d spent a “fair amount of time looking” at how he’d set about fixing it.
For all the complicated reasons analysts have offered to explain Walker’s triumph in the June 5 recall, the simplest one is the truest: Walker won because he’d campaigned on solving Wisconsin’s budget woes, and he did what he said he’d do. The state went from a $3.6 billion biennial deficit to a projected surplus of $154 million. It worked.
This is the story of Walker’s career.
He was elected governor on his record as Milwaukee County executive. He won that position promising to be a reformer, and then he implemented his reforms. And they worked. Walker trimmed the number of county workers by 20 percent; he fought to keep property taxes low; and, by the end of his term in 2008, even as Wisconsin was on its way to a record deficit, he had turned a $3.5 million deficit in Milwaukee County into a surplus.
So in a county with a long history of progressive politics, this conservative reformer won re-election twice. In 2008, Walker won 59 percent of the vote just eight months before Barack Obama won Milwaukee County with 67.5 percent against John McCain.
Republicans, even conservative Republicans, can win in deep blue counties and light-blue states if they offer real solutions to the problems caused by bloated government and then follow through on those campaign pledges. It turns out that voters reward politicians who keep their promises and gets results.
And that’s the lesson: Nothing succeeds like success.
Stephen Hayes, a Wauwatosa native, is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and a Fox TV panelist on Special Report with Bret Baier.