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Scott Walker's unprincipled rigidity

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, February 27, 2011;

"He's not one of us."

That phrase, uttered in the fourth minute of what Scott Walker believed to be a private phone conversation, tells you everything you need to know about the rookie governor of Wisconsin.

Walker thought he was talking to a patron, conservative billionaire David Koch, but thanks to the amateurish management that seems to be a hallmark of his governorship, he was instead being punked by an impostor from a liberal Web site.

In the recorded call, Walker praised a centrist state senator, Tim Cullen, as "about the only reasonable one" among the 14 Democratic legislators who fled the state to deny Walker the quorum he needs to destroy Wisconsin's public-sector unions. But when the fake Koch offered to call Cullen, Walker discouraged him:

"He's pretty reasonable, but he's not one of us. . . . He's not there for political reasons. He's just trying to get something done. . . . He's not a conservative. He's just a pragmatist."

"Just a pragmatist" - as if it were an epithet. "Just trying to get something done" - as if this were evidence of a character defect.

I reached the unacceptably reasonable and pragmatic Cullen by phone in Illinois, where he is hiding out from Wisconsin state troopers who, dispatched by state Republicans, had been at his home each of the past two nights to try to force him back to the capitol.

Cullen had a description of Walker, too. "This is the eighth governor that I've worked with in one way or another - four Republicans, four Democrats - and this is the first governor who takes a clear public position that he will never negotiate," said Cullen, who worked in Republican governor Tommy Thompson's administration between stints in the state Senate. "The other seven were willing to take the 70 or 80 percent of what they wanted. . . . That's what you need to do to make government work."

Cullen got a call from Thompson last week and is hoping his old friend will persuade Walker to negotiate. But that won't be easy. Under Walker's tribal political theory, governing is a never-ending cycle of revenge killings.

"I don't budge," Walker promised the fake Koch. He explained that he would increase pressure on state workers by threatening thousands of them with layoffs. He considered planting instigators in the crowd, he said, and he might offer to talk to Democrats - but only as a ruse to get them to return. "I'm not negotiating," he said.

These are not the words of a statesman. These are the words of a hooligan.

Of course, Washington knows all about tribalism, as both sides giddily await a possible shutdown of the government. But Walker's excesses show where this leads. It leads to hypocrisy: He called President Obama's health-care reform an "unprecedented power grab," but once in office he launched his own grab by attempting to end collective bargaining for public workers. It leads to falsification: He claims he campaigned on ending collective bargaining, but a Politifact analysis found that he did no such thing. And now, it's leading to fantasy.

Walker told the faux Koch that "before we dropped the bomb," he showed his Cabinet a picture of Ronald Reagan and proclaimed that "one of the most defining moments of his political career [was] when he fired the air traffic controllers." That, Walker said, "was the first crack in the Berlin Wall." And now, "this is our time to change the course of history."

It takes some creativity to liken the air traffic controllers to Wisconsin's public workers, who are not on strike and have offered concessions. It takes even more creativity to credit the firing of the controllers (rather than, say, Reagan's military buildup) for the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it takes gall for Walker to claim the mantle of Reagan, who compromised with Democrats and Soviets alike.

Maybe Tim Cullen knows about that. "Reagan was able to work deals," Cullen, who was Wisconsin's Senate majority leader during Reagan's presidency, recalled. Walker, by contrast, is repeating the mistakes of Obama, who, Cullen thinks, overreached on health care. Even if Walker prevails, "it would be a short-term win," he said. "If you do it with only one party, you often lose that 40 percent that's in the middle."

Contrast that with Cullen's philosophy, which he says he learned from Lyndon Johnson: "Any person not willing to settle for half a loaf has never been hungry."

Only a truly unreasonable man would say that Tim Cullen is not one of us.

E-mail: danamilbank@washpost.com; Twitter: @milbank

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