The Magazine

Governor Walker’s Play-by-Play

The State of the Union, as seen from Wisconsin.

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Madison, Wis.
Sitting in front of an oversized HD television in the basement of the governor’s residence, a relaxed Scott Walker settles in to wait for Barack Obama to begin the first State of the Union address of his second term.

Watching the SOTU from Wisconsin

David Malan

The residence is otherwise empty. Walker’s wife, Tonette, is back at the family home in Wauwatosa, where he would join her later that evening. Aside from one security officer, there is no staff. Walker fetched plastic-wrapped dinner from the kitchen counter—roast-beef sandwiches on kaiser rolls, raw veggies, potato salad, and deviled eggs. The governor, on antibiotics for a sinus infection, opts for an IBC Root Beer rather than a cold (and exceptionally tasty) Spotted Cow, brewed nearby in New Glarus. One of the owners of the brewery, Walker says, is at the speech as a guest of Michelle Obama.

Out back, beyond several feet of fresh, untrampled snow, the surface waters of Lake Mendota are frozen solid. Not long ago, during the chaos and controversy that attended Walker’s budget reforms in 2011 and 2012, those waters made it possible for protesters to register their displeasure with Walker by boat. But things are quiet now, and not just because it’s winter.

Walker’s reforms worked. In two years, Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion biennial deficit has disappeared. The latest projections from the state show Wisconsin with a surplus of $342 million, a figure that does not include funds deposited into the state’s “rainy day” account. As Washington, $16.5 trillion in the red, debates whether the federal government has “a spending problem,” Walker is rolling out additional reforms to make state government leaner in advance of the presentation of his next budget on February 20. Among those new proposals are major changes in Medicaid, welfare, and taxes, all of them designed to further reduce the role of government in the lives of Wisconsinites. With his party in control of both houses in the state legislature and a wonk’s enthusiasm for policy innovation, Walker may be the closest thing to the anti-Obama that exists in a state capitol today. He watches the president’s speech with a keen eye on its implications for states and its broader philosophical message.

As Obama begins, Walker’s eyes alternate between the TV and his BlackBerry, on which he reads along with the president and notes every time Obama departs from his prepared remarks. The president opens with language that could have come from a Ronald Reagan speech, with a call for a limited government that “encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.”

Walker anticipates that Obama is saying this to set up a contrasting argument. “I agree with all of that,” he says. “It’s too bad everything he’s going to talk about tonight contradicts that.”

As predictions go, that’s not exactly brittle-limb territory. Moments later, Obama begins his aggressive defense of government activism, and Walker begins doing what conservatives across the country are no doubt doing as the president speaks: talking at the television. Walker never raises his voice, but he offers a Mystery Science Theater-style running commentary on Obama’s claims and promises.

Obama: “Most Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and independents—understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity.” (Walker: “We can’t spend our way to prosperity, either. We have to grow.”) “They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, with everyone doing their fair share.” (Walker, shaking his head: “How many times can you tax the rich?”)

Obama: “Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America.” (Walker: “To pay your bills on time means you don’t spend more than you have.”)

Obama: “I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change.” (Walker: “If there are market-based solutions to climate change, why do we need Congress to act?”)

When the camera focuses on a miserable House speaker John Boehner after a line that caused Democrats to jump to their feet, Walker is sympathetic. “That’s got to be the worst job. You almost hope for a line you can get fired up for just so you stand up and get your blood circulating.”

Walker, on Obama’s universal preschool proposal: “Where does that money come from?” On the minimum-wage hike: “We need jobs that are well above the minimum wage,   and this will keep young kids who want a job from being able to get one and get into the workforce.”

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