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The Michigan Experience

Why Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans shouldn’t sweat their dip in the polls.

9:30 PM, Mar 5, 2011 • By SPENCER ABRAHAM
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As the faceoff in Wisconsin enters its most critical stage, America finds itself bombarded with an array of polling data designed to provide insight into the thinking of citizens (not always registered voters) on the standoff between Governor Scott Walker (and the state’s Republican legislators) on one side and organized labor (along with their Democratic legislative backers) on the other.

The Michigan Experience

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Taken as a whole, the headlines and thrust of most of the polling coverage is that the public is sympathetic to the union side and that Governor Walker’s job approval numbers are upside down. Indeed, two recent Wisconsin polls—conducted by Rasmussen and PPP—show Walker’s support in the low to mid 40s.

Even more attention has been focused on PPP’s finding that if last November’s election were rerun today Walker (who captured 52 percent in that race) would lose to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by a 52-47 margin.

This latter result has been treated as though it is surprising news, and since its announcement much of the mainstream media and pundit commentary have been suggesting that Wisconsin Republicans need to be unsettled by the data and proceed with caution—shorthand for “they ought to cave in.”

So should we really be surprised by these findings? Since his inauguration Governor Walker has had to make the tough calls. It is he who has led the effort to reduce public employee benefits and limit the ability of public employee unions to negotiate the types of contracts that have led his state to the brink of fiscal ruin. But if he hadn’t done this what were his alternatives? They included such politically appealing options as enormous cuts in health care programs for seniors and the less fortunate and education (beyond what he has proposed), economy-stifling tax hikes, or some combination of both. And were he to have gone down any of those avenues what would we have seen? Protesters in Madison assailing Walker’s insensitivity, alleging that he wanted to kill children and seniors and daily headlines and commentaries employing the words “draconian,” “bludgeoning,” “slashing,” and “to the bone,” wherever possible.

Meanwhile his former opponent Tom Barrett has been on the sidelines. He hasn’t had to offer his own blueprint for dealing with the statewide fiscal mess left behind by former governor Jim Doyle. He hasn’t had to itemize which programs and benefits he would cut nor which taxes he would raise. For the most part he has basically stayed out of the line of fire. That he’s ahead in a hypothetical matchup is no surprise—if anything it’s surprising that his lead isn’t larger than five points.

For much of America, the recent events in Wisconsin appear unique. Massive protests in Madison, people sleeping in the capitol building, a governor absorbing vitriolic attacks and so on are hardly the usual political fare. But for those of us from Michigan, the events in Wisconsin prompt vivid memories of the antics that occurred in our state 20 years ago. Back then Michigan was in a recession and newly elected Republican governor John Engler was facing a poor economy, long unemployment lines, and tons of red ink. Rather than hope for miracles or buy into the notion he could tax his way to fiscal and economic success, Engler took on the big government forces and started cutting taxes and spending.

As is the case in Wisconsin, the vested interests went nuts. Protest marches on Lansing were followed by huge demonstrations on the state capitol lawn. Soon Jesse Jackson arrived on the scene to lead the demonstrators and decry the “draconian” cuts that would most certainly lead to death and ruin. The more zealous protesters pitched tents on the capitol lawn and moved in. They named their impromptu community Englerville and asserted that the governor’s policies had made them homeless (although the evidence suggested that the inhabitants of the makeshift community were either already homeless, paid protesters, or volunteers who returned to their own homes after a few nights helping the cause). Soon nearly every piece of bad news in the state was being portrayed as stemming from Engler’s reckless changes. I particularly recall a news item in which the friends of a suicide victim contended that the deceased had been especially upset by the Engler budget cuts and that this might have prompted his unexpected self-inflicted demise.

As in Wisconsin, these events prompted an initial period of political backlash. Engler’s approval ratings fell far below Walker’s (into the 20s as I recall), and the experts rated his chances for re-election as slim to none.

Engler and Michigan Republican legislators were faced with the same choice that Scott Walker and his allies face today. Cave in to the pressure and seek accommodation or stick to their guns and make the changes necessary to put their state on the right path. They chose the latter course and accomplished their mission. Soon Michigan was out of budget danger. Later, as the state’s economy improved, Michigan not only moved into the black but was able to build a large surplus. That the state’s resurgence was not merely a reflection of a national trend could be seen in the numbers, which indicated that for the first time in years Michigan’s unemployment rate was “below” the national average. Adding further evidence was the announcement that Michigan was voted the number one destination for new business relocations due in large part to the 20 plus tax cuts Engler and his team had enacted.

As for Engler’s seemingly dim political prospects and dismal approval ratings, they too underwent a radical reversal. In 1994, he was re-elected with about 60 percent of the vote. Four years later, he won a third term with an even larger margin.

What the Michigan experience proves and what will be demonstrated again in Wisconsin is that in the short run, fighting the kind of fight Scott Walker is waging will not produce high levels of popular support for the proponents of change. For now, the headlines and mainstream media attention will make the “victims” of change appear sympathetic figures. Moreover, the allegations being made about the impact of the new policies will sound frightening to voters. Everyone fears the unknown, and scaring voters is something at which organized labor and its allies have proven themselves adept.

But, if Walker and company stick to their guns and make the changes needed to put their state on the right path, they will find their actions increasingly popular as Wisconsin gets back on track. When voters realize that the “sky didn’t fall” and that their schools and public services do not suffer any diminution in quality, their concern will turn to respect for politicians who stood their ground and made the tough decisions, as opposed to those who ran away from their duties. As Wisconsin’s economy rebounds and businesses from high-tax Illinois relocate to low-tax Wisconsin, the wisdom of Walker’s approach will become increasingly clear. Ultimately, Walker and those who stand with him will enjoy the same popular success as Engler and his Michigan cohorts. And Wisconsin will be the ultimate winner as its economy and future become strong and dynamic. 

Spencer Abraham, chairman and CEO of the Abraham Group, was U.S. senator from Michigan from 1995 to 2001 and secretary of energy from 2001 to 2005.

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