Fresh off its widely-mocked exclusive on the traffic citations given Marco and Jeannette Rubio – fewer than one per year, combined – the New York Times has an in-depth look at Scott Walker and the wealthy conservatives who backed him throughout his rise to national prominence. It’s a classic of the genre.
The article is more sophisticated than the awkward and error-filled attempted hit on Walker by Gail Collins from the Times editorial page, who blamed Walker for layoffs that took place before he had been elected. And it avoids the kind of over-the-top claims that require corrections. But the piece nonetheless makes clear that its authors believe Walker’s views are far out of the mainstream and that he owes his success to wealthy conservatives eager to exploit a simpleton as the vessel for their ideological goals.
Indeed, they say this directly and without much qualification. Consider: “But the reasons for Mr. Walker’s success are more complex. In the Wisconsin legislature and as Milwaukee County executive, he always liked going to extremes and basking in his own brand of boldness. What he needed, as he climbed the political ladder, was the money and endorsements that [Bradley Foundation president Michael Grebe] and his conservative allies brought.”
The reporters are so convinced of the notion that Walker “always liked going to extremes” that they didn’t feel the need to source it. And they accept uncritically a specious claim from a local union leader that Walker was a cipher until big-money conservatives swept in behind him. They quote Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, who claims: “Scott Walker didn’t have the stature, influence or money to become governor on his own or to end collective bargaining on his own. All that flowed from Mike Grebe, the Bradley Foundation and a network of influential conservatives, including the Kochs.”
It’s an assertion that conveniently fits the Times’s skeptical narrative on Walker. But it’s also wrong. Walker was elected three times to serve as county executive in Milwaukee County, one of Wisconsin’s most heavily-Democratic counties and its most populous. First elected in 2002 in a special election, Walker was reelected in 2004 and again in 2008. He won that last contest, indisputably a referendum on his six years in office, in a blowout over State Senator Lena Taylor. Walker won 57 percent to Taylor’s 40 percent – a fact that badly weakens the claim that Walker didn’t have the stature to win a gubernatorial race two years later. (Discerning readers might recognize that it also undermines the Times’s claim that he is an extremist).
The article describes at length the sources of conservative money that helped propel Walker forward and notes the “right-wing talk radio hosts” who amplified his voice. There is some rather straightforward campaign finance reporting that helps the reader understand Walker’s backing, but it’s tainted by loaded characterizations of the players and hints of sinister motives. And the story is missing one major component: the other side.
National labor unions poured money into Wisconsin in an attempt to defeat Walker during the 2012 recall and again in the 2014 midterms, where Walker was the top target of national Democrats and the unions. As Lee Saunders, the president of AFSCME, told the Washington Post: “We have a score to settle with Scott Walker. He took collective bargaining away from us. He stole our voices in a state where we were born.” Walker and his supporters outspent those trying to unseat him in both races – by 3-to-1 in 2012 and 2-to-1 in 2014, according to the left-leaning Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.* Money was clearly part of the story. But all of it?
Perhaps the most revealing omission comes in a section labeled “Electoral Vindication.” The Times reporters acknowledge Walker’s electoral successes – they have to, it’s the reason for their piece – but only on their way to offering what they see as the reasons behind those wins.
And again, it was the money. Walker won the 2010 gubernatorial recall, the story suggests, because he “had a national network of conservative donors and groups behind him” and some well-heeled Wisconsinites, too. While the article offers great detail on Walker’s fundraising, it neglects other factors that contributed to his victories.