A young Wisconsin trio could shape the direction of the GOP

Dan Balz Dan Balz
Sunday, February 6, 2011; A02

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 he 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 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.

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."

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.

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.

Democrats say Republican budget cuts could have a devastating impact on some services (while contending that the GOP is already breaking its promises for even bigger cuts). They also say the policies that Walker and other GOP governors are putting in place in hopes of reviving the economies of their states are far from proven as superior to those they will replace.

Ryan and Walker are well aware that the emphasis on spending cuts risks turning the Republican Party into the austerity party at a time when the president is presenting an optimistic vision for the future. That contrast existed the night of the State of the Union, as Ryan delivered a response that warned of grave dangers if federal spending is not checked - and with potentially tough medicine.

"I think Paul did an effective job of not just being about austerity . . . but then at the same time being optimistic about the solutions," Walker said. "I think the November elections showed that people are ready for that message."

Ryan said Republicans must be clear that their efforts to restrain spending are for the purpose of producing faster growth, more prosperity and greater individual freedom. "We're not dour, root-canal type of Republicans," Ryan said. But he acknowledged that the focus on spending cuts makes it "very easy to slip into the green eyeshade mantra" of an earlier Republican Party. "We're all happy warriors," Ryan said of the Wisconsin trio.

Managing the demands of tea party activists is a potentially major challenge for Republican leaders. Many of those activists want spending cut deeper and faster than the leaders believe is prudent. The fissures within the party threaten continued internal conflict that could hinder the party's efforts to add to its 2010 victories in 2012.

In Wisconsin last year, those conflicts never materialized, in part because Priebus helped integrate the tea party into the GOP structure. "Early on, when the jury was still out on where the tea party was going, Reince was there early making the case," Walker said. "He mainstreamed [the tea party] not by force but by commitment to the ideas of both the party base and the tea party movement."

But it was also the case that the party's most prominent candidates, from Ryan to Walker to Johnson, were all deeply conservative - more conservative, Ryan said, than Republicans of the Thompson era in Wisconsin. "The Republicans here worked up through the ranks of the conservative movement," he said. "That's why it's not much of a stretch for the tea party to be symbiotic with the Republican Party."

The Wisconsin model worked to put Republicans in positions of power. Now the trio of Ryan, Walker and Priebus face the bigger challenge of showing that their ideas and strategies can work on an even bigger stage.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company