Uncompromised: Why Scott Walker Survived His Recall

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Brian Cahn / ZUMA Press

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, arriving to make his acceptance speech after winning the gubernatorial recall election, in Waukesha, Wis., on June 5, 2012

Scott Walker’s triumph in Wisconsin on Tuesday night, beating out Democratic challenger Tom Barrett 53%–46%, will have cascading consequences, as the second most important election of 2012 should. The victory brings validation for his supporters, a potential boost for Mitt Romney and bitter disappointment for Wisconsin progressives and labor unions, if not Barack Obama. Amid the avalanche of postmortems, some will surely point to the structural reasons for Walker’s success: a yawning fundraising advantage, voters weary of Wisconsin’s endless elections or fissures in a Democratic Party struggling to reconcile its fraught relationship with public unions. And while all these factors were important, equally so was the performance of the candidate himself. 

Strip away the massive spending and the bare-knuckle tactics and the spectacle of a state torn in two. At bottom, this was an election about what kind of politician Americans prize. Walker won not despite his refusal to compromise but because of it. He cast himself as a politician of conviction, even when his convictions might not be popular. Voters may bemoan the absence of bipartisanship, but the truth is that most prefer their elected leaders to be ideologues. As a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed last week, a solid majority, including two-thirds of Republicans and 55% of independents, favors a President who fights rather than compromises. As Alexis de Tocqueville said, we get the government we deserve.

(MORE: In Wisconsin’s Recall, a Tale of Two Parties)

In his mild-mannered way, Walker embodies the spirit of pugnacity that has overtaken his party. (Even its presidential nominee is embracing it, with stunts like heckling David Axelrod’s Boston press conference.) “I’ve never seen him compromise,” says Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic assemblyman and political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Those who know Walker say he has always been this way. Sheldon Wasserman, a Democrat who served with the governor in the state assembly in the 1990s, says even then Walker was intent on maintaining ideological purity. Wasserman recalls an episode when Republican leaders were whipping the rank and file into supporting a budget that included a gas-tax hike to pay for road construction. Walker was steadfast in his opposition, prompting David Prosser, then the assembly speaker and now a state supreme court justice (who survived a referendum on his own fate last year), to buttonhole the backbencher on the floor of the chamber. Prosser “lost it on the floor of the assembly. He started screaming and jumping up and down like a monkey,” Wasserman recalls. Other leaders joined in the browbeating. Walker “had this impassive, stone-like face, and he shook his head,” Wasserman says. “He had a small little smile on his face. He was like a stone statue, and in the end he didn’t bend.” The tax failed.

When bedlam erupted in Madison last winter over Walker’s collective-bargaining restrictions, critics said the governor, gripped by this sort of ideological fervor, had picked a kamikaze mission in a state with a deep tradition of progressive politics. “I stood up and made a stand,” Walker told TIME in a May interview. But political courage and political opportunism can be the same thing. By starting a fight with public unions, which are long-standing Republican foes, Walker made some powerful friends — who went on to fund his recall defense and make him a national star.

(MORE: How Scott Walker Went to War on His Recall)

Which isn’t to say that Walker-the-ideologue is an act. Far from it. “He’s a true core conservative. He’s not shy about it,” says Joe Sanfelippo, who worked with Walker on the Milwaukee County board of supervisors. “He knows what he believes in, and all his policies are aimed with those things in mind.” But Walker has also showed restraint when it benefits him: he exempted cops and firefighters, groups that enjoy strong public support and tend to lean Republican, from his collective-bargaining bill. The decision may have been his career’s saving grace. Ohio Governor John Kasich, who included such groups in his own union crackdown, saw that law fall last year in a public referendum. As Milwaukee County executive, Walker also had a habit, say opponents, of submitting budgets that would never pass but which would preserve his anti-tax bona fides.

Another of Walker’s tricks is to soften his hard-charging politics with anodyne rhetoric, full of business jargon and clichés. “He’s a talk-radio Republican, but he avoids coming across as angry and hot,” says the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Lee. (Indeed, the half-dozen former Democratic colleagues I spoke to all praised Walker as unfailingly polite.) On the stump, he doesn’t look like a champion or a villain; he has all the color and charisma of an accountant. He is zealously on message, repeating talking points almost to the paragraph. At one press conference I attended last month outside Milwaukee, Walker was asked about the claim that his corporate tax credits had boosted the wealthy at the expense of middle-class workers. “Those are tax breaks for business,” he responded. “Those are tax reductions for jobs.” In a contentious campaign, speaking in bland tautologies can be a useful skill.

For all the import heaped on the recall, Walker’s most significant legislation is almost certainly behind him. Democrats may seize control of the senate through down-ballot recalls, preventing the governor from employing strong-arm tactics to muscle through controversial legislation. Even if he has his majorities, Walker seems to realize that it may be time to go easy for a while, which is why he insists he wouldn’t let a right-to-work bill reach his desk. “I don’t want to rehash that debate again,” he says.

But sooner or later, it’s a good bet Walker will find his way to a new controversy, another occasion to rise to a fight. It’s the will of the people, after all.

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