In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker this week won a war of choice. But his victory doesn’t erase the question of whether he needed to wage the war at all. Or whether this kind of scorched-earth political combat offers the best model for resolving the comparable challenges awaiting the next president, as some may now insist.
Walker faced a genuine challenge when he arrived in office in 2011: a $3.5 billion state budget deficit swelled by the sustained economic downturn. But he responded with a consciously confrontational solution that ignited two years of unprecedented and unstinting partisan conflict. The fact that Walker’s opponents responded with excesses of their own (including, arguably, the recall election itself), or that he’s left standing after the last shot has been fired (at least until 2014), shouldn’t be confused with proof that he was wise to initiate these hostilities. Victory in an unnecessary battle isn’t really a victory at all; ask the generals at Verdun.
Walker, more than anyone else, pointed the state toward this abyss by responding to the budget crisis with a sharply ideological plan that targeted its pain almost entirely at Democratic constituencies. He closed the deficit solely with spending cuts, particularly in local aid to education; reduced, rather than raised, taxes despite the shortfall; and reached far beyond the immediate challenge by severely curtailing collective-bargaining rights for public employees. Predictably, his agenda passed without support from a single Democrat in either state legislative chamber.
Walker’s plan undeniably brought some needed changes. Using the flexibility it provided, local governments have negotiated union contracts that demand more-reasonable contributions from public employees toward their health care and pensions. As Mike Ford, the research director for the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, wrote recently, “Though initially painful for many, [Walker’s budget] removed barriers to effective and sustainable local governance to the future benefit of Wisconsin residents.”
But Wisconsin’s fiscal problem when Walker took office was an economic downturn, not an unsustainable spending spree that demanded an uncompromising reversal in direction. Under his Democratic predecessor, the state had fallen from fifth to 14th among the states in its tax burden; in 2009, state tax collections consumed a smaller share of state income that at any point since the early 1960s. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis in 2010 placed the state 26th in public spending as a share of state income.
That inheritance allowed Walker to pursue a package that equitably shared sacrifice. Instead, he refused to balance the cuts for union members (and the local school boards facing a sharp reduction in state aid) with higher tax contributions from the affluent or corporations. Then, he threw gasoline on the fire by deciding not to negotiate givebacks directly with the public-employee unions (which they had signaled they would accept), but to strip them of their rights to collectively bargain on those issues altogether.
Since then, Wisconsin has lived through tumultuous protests and occupations in the state Capitol and two rounds of bitter, astronomically expensive recall elections that culminated in this week’s voting that sustained Walker but apparently flipped control of the state Senate to the Democrats. The climate has been so toxic that in a Marquette University poll conducted just before the vote, one-third of Wisconsin adults said they have stopped talking politics with someone because of their disagreements over Walker.
In both parties, many activists will say Walker’s survival proves that in this polarized era, the only way to achieve effective change is to ruthlessly unify your own party, concede nothing to the other party (or its constituencies), and bulldoze forward as long as you can hold support from 50-plus-1 percent of the voters. But other governors facing comparable strains have shown that is not the only choice.
In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy, also elected in 2010, closed a deficit as large as Wisconsin’s with $1 billion in spending reductions, $1.5 billion in tax increases, and $1.6 billion in union concessions. It wasn’t easy, but the plan ultimately drew support from public-employee unions (after initial resistance) and the chief executives of the major insurance companies that anchor the state’s business community. The fact that Malloy pursued tax increases and spending cuts made it easier to seek union concessions—and vice versa. “It was a balanced approach, and that made it easier to do that big ask of labor,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior adviser. “It was a big ask. But it was also a big ask of taxpayers and people who depend on the social safety net.”
Walker’s justified focus on pension and health care spending should encourage Washington to confront unsustainable entitlement costs when it tackles the federal deficit again after November. But the War of Wisconsin that followed Walker’s decision to direct almost all the suffering in his plan toward the other party’s constituencies shows the danger of that insular approach. By demanding contributions from all segments of society, Malloy closed an equally daunting deficit without remotely as much turmoil. It’s a contrast the next president should remember.
This article appears in the June 9, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.