Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on the perils of bipartisanship

Video: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks about why he thinks his state will go into Republican Mitt Romney’s column in November.

TAMPA — If Rep. Paul Ryan is the intellectual leader of the Republican Party, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker may be its backbone. As Ryan provides the policy road map for a new conservative GOP, Walker is articulating a leadership ethic that turns some conventional wisdom on its head.

Wednesday was Ryan’s day at the Republican National Convention, his moment to accept the nomination as Mitt Romney’s running mate and to outline the details of a governing agenda to shrink the power of Washington, a plan he and Romney hope to implement if they win in November.

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Walker is playing a supporting role to his friend and fellow Wisconsinite and to Romney. But the rousing reception he got from the delegates when he walked on stage Tuesday night points to the emotional bond he has forged with the party’s conservative base after standing his ground and winning a recall election in June.

In conversation, Walker is soft-spoken, in contrast to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his in-your-face rhetoric. But Walker is not faint of heart. He made his reputation in Wisconsin pursuing a fiscal reform agenda of tax and spending cuts that included ending most collective-bargaining rights for public employees.

He survived angry protests that filled the state capitol in Madison in the months after he was sworn into office, and he prevailed, rather comfortably, in the recall election that resulted from the turmoil.

He says he has tried to lower temperatures since then, at least a bit. But do not look to Walker to sound a “change the tone” message. He prefers a leadership style built on taking strong stands and bold action rather than making compromises for the sake of bipartisanship.

“Bipartisanship’s good if it’s done for the right reasons,” he told reporters from The Washington Post and Bloomberg News at a breakfast Wednesday morning. “But bipartisanship by its nature is not necessarily a good thing if it’s done for the wrong reason.”

Walker embodies a view of governing that has increasingly taken hold in the Republican Party, a view that says it’s better to tell voters what you want to do and then stick to those principles, even if the public isn’t initially with you.

“As messed up as Washington is,” he said, “you’ve got to have leadership that just comes in and says, ‘Here’s what we got to do,’ make the case to do it, and probably, like Reagan did, use the bully pulpit and make it convincingly around the country.”

This is much the same view that Christie described in his keynote address Tuesday night. It’s not that these Republican governors aren’t looking for Democratic votes; in some cases, as in New Jersey, they can’t operate without Democratic votes. It’s that they are determined to use the power of their office to bend public opinion to force their opponents to follow their lead.

“My view is, give people a shot,” Walker said Wednesday morning. “Right after the November 2, 2010, election, I came in and spoke to all the legislative Republicans, those in office, those newly elected, and said, ‘It’s put-up-or-shut-up time.’ I said, ‘If . . . we don’t do the things we campaigned on, if we don’t make a fundamental change from where we’ve been the last few years, when Democrats controlled everything, if we’re just slightly less bad than they are, two years from now the voters have every right to kick us out.’ ”

Walker spent much of the breakfast talking about the need for a bold agenda to tackle the country’s fiscal problems. He was most revealing about how he sees governing when asked by my Post colleague, columnist and editorial writer Ruth Marcus, whether he would have supported the budgetary recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission.

“I wouldn’t be on the commission,” he said.

That may sound like heresy to those who see such commissions as vehicles to break impasses in Washington and to provide lawmakers cover to do something they aren’t otherwise capable of doing. Walker views such panels — or at least fiscal commissions — as a trap. “I just think in Washington today there’s too much of a belief that compromise means revenue,” he said. “And I just think even bigger than the fiscal crisis we face is the economic crisis we face.”

The Simpson-Bowles commission concluded that the country’s fiscal problems can’t be solved without a combination of spending cuts and some new taxes, a view shared by many others who have studied the problem. Ryan was a member of the commission but voted against its final recommendations.

Walker thinks that the country’s fiscal situation can be solved without new tax revenue. “Not only do I believe it can be, I believe it has to be,” he said.

He says he’s not against working with Democrats, noting that much of the legislation approved in a special jobs session in his state passed with Democratic votes. But he strongly believes that he won his recall fight because he held firm to his convictions and was rewarded by voters — who may not have liked all the things he advocated but nonetheless admired his leadership.

Walker showed that such a style can be politically successful, but it also can be deeply polarizing. He may have won the recall by a slightly bigger margin than his original election in 2010, but he is still opposed by almost half the voters in his state.

A Democratic strategist recently said that Romney’s selection of Ryan made this an “all-in” election, in which both tickets will outline clear but diametrically opposed agendas. The winner will then claim a mandate and try to implement those policies. Walker has convinced Republicans that that’s the best way to govern in a time of polarization.

 
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