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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 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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