His proposal to eliminate collective bargaining for most state employees brought thousands of demonstrators to Madison daily during the heat of the battle, prompted a walkout of Democratic senators and inflamed passions among citizens. After a long legislative struggle and court challenges, Walker’s initiatives have gone into effect.
As he looks back, the new governor does not think he made bad policy decisions. Over time, Wisconsin will be better off as a result, he argues. But he acknowledges that he made several miscalculations that have cost him dearly in terms of his political standing and in the state’s ability to do its business harmoniously.
Given the opportunity to start over, Walker said, he would not back away from confronting public employee unions over pay and compensation and bargaining rights. But he wishes he had laid the foundation for his proposed changes more effectively. He also wishes he had more accurately anticipated the backlash that they would set off in the state and across the country, and says he would have had a political plan to deal with the opposition.
Walker said he came into office with the mindset of both a county executive and a small-business owner. “Identify a problem. Identify a solution. And you just do it,” he said. He set a fast pace in January with the legislature, without preparing the public. That might have worked in other settings, but it backfired on the new governor.
“We didn’t do enough of a job of making the case for what we were doing and why it was needed,” he said.
Walker anticipated an intense but short battle. He admits he underestimated the powerful reaction, particularly outside of his state. “Where I was really shocked [was] not so much the public’s reaction [in Wisconsin] as much as it was the national reaction,” he said.
He continues to pay the price. Wisconsin remains in political turmoil. Recall elections are pending for nine state senators, six Republicans and three Democrats. Republicans could lose their Senate majority as a result. The governor could face a recall next year.
Lawmakers, the political parties and their coalitions are now consumed with elections and recriminations, rather than being able to concentrate on finding ways to create jobs and fix the economy — the major promises of Walker’s campaign.
“It’s tough,” Walker said about the GOP’s prospects for holding onto the Senate. He argued that the more Wisconsin citizens learn about the effects of the changes in his budget, particularly in education, the more they will see them positively. “If the election were January 9th rather than August 9th, I’d feel a lot better,” he said.
Gregoire, serving as this year’s NGA chairman, has decided not to seek reelection in 2012. She says that her state will be better off over the next year if she is not in the middle of a campaign. Walker will govern in a polarized environment for a long time. He will have to try to regroup from his difficult start.
The other lesson from the states is obvious. As President Obama and lawmakers in both parties try to resolve their dispute over the budget and the debt ceiling, the experiences of these two governors — and many others — stand as a reminder that there will be nothing cost-free about their solution, whatever it turns out to be.