The Take

A young Wisconsin trio could shape the direction of the GOP

The new national Republican Party chairman says his party has to "get on track'' to "defeat Barack Obama in 2012.'' In a brief victory speech, Reince Priebus asked for unity within the fractured 168-member Republican National Committee.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 3:28 PM

The Green Bay Packers aren't the only Wisconsin team having an impact these days. A trio of young Wisconsin politicians are now positioned to have a substantial influence on the future direction and success of the Republican Party.

Their names are Scott Walker, Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan. Walker is the newly elected governor of Wisconsin. Priebus is the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee. Ryan, perhaps the best known of the three, is the new chairman of the House Budget Committee and delivered the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address.

They all grew up in southern Wisconsin. They are close in age, ranging from late 30s to early 40s, and have known and worked with one another for many years. Ryan and Walker met when they were in their 20s. Ryan's chief of staff roomed with Priebus in college.

They are not only friends but political soul mates. They share a worldview, a set of conservative values and a determination to show the country that conservative governance can solve many of the nation's problems. And in Wisconsin, they found a way to unify the party establishment with the tea party movement, avoiding many of the conflicts that occurred in other states.

Republicans scored major victories in Wisconsin in the fall. They captured the governor's mansion and control both houses of the state legislature with big majorities. They picked up two U.S. House seats, including one held for decades by Democrat David Obey, who retired. They elected businessman and political novice Ron Johnson, who defeated Democratic former U.S. senator Russell Feingold in one of the major surprises of the year.

Ryan, Walker and Priebus were shaped by the examples of three politicians: Ronald Reagan, Tommy Thompson and Jack Kemp. They were all youngsters when Reagan was president, but his influence was significant. "Reagan no doubt shaped my worldview, this idea of being realistic about challenges and optimistic about solutions," Walker said.

But Walker also credited Thompson as a major influence as well. Thompson was elected governor of Wisconsin four times and later served as secretary of health and human services. He was regarded as one of the party's most innovative leaders in domestic policy. He is best known for his efforts to reform the welfare system in Wisconsin, which became a model for the national legislation.

Ryan, who did not come up through the ranks of state politics, gives Kemp, a former congressman, Cabinet secretary and vice presidential candidate for whom he worked at Empower America, much credit for his approach to politics. Kemp, an irrepressible optimist and big-tent Republican, was an advocate of cutting taxes, a philosophy adopted by Reagan that remains an article of faith for conservatives.

Walker, who is one of a group of new Republican governors determined to shake up their states, is off to a fast start. Thanks in part to those big majorities in the legislature, he has already signed five of eight bills that are the heart of his economic program for the state. They include the repeal of the state income tax on health savings accounts, tort reform, the expansion of an economic development tax credit, a relocation tax credit for business and a tax deduction for job creation. Other measures are on track for completion, including a bill that would require a two-thirds majority to pass tax increases.

Walker said he regarded his campaign for governor as a two-year job interview "for a company that was in trouble." Once elected, he said he was determined to move as quickly as possible to implement the promises from the campaign. "We haven't taken much of a breath," he said. He added: "My view is if I were CEO of any other company, I wouldn't wait six months or a year to do it. I'd do it right away and that's exactly what we're doing."

Ryan has the responsibility to put the congressional party's pledge to sharply cut spending into practice. Last week, Republicans laid out a proposal to slice $32 billion from the federal budget over the coming months. That is but the first move in what will shape up as a series of major confrontations with the Obama administration over federal spending - the outcome of which could shape the 2012 presidential election.

Priebus, the former Wisconsin Republican Party chairman, took over the RNC last month from deposed chairman Michael Steele (for whom Priebus once served as general counsel). He has pledged to put the committee's finances in order and has moved quickly to restore relations with major donors and to clean up other parts of the national party operation.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company