On Friday, Feb. 24, The Washington Post’s James Hohmann talked with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) about his agenda for the year ahead, along with what Donald Trump can learn from his experiences and how the unified Republican government at the federal level can help the states. Walker, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, also discussed 2018, when he is expected to seek a third term. Here’s a transcript of the interview, edited for length and readability:
What governors need from Washington
Hohmann: In the next couple days, you’re meeting with both President Trump and Vice President Pence. What can this administration do for you and for Republican governors?
Walker: Mike Pence, having been a governor up until a month-and-a-half ago, actually has a good collegial relationship not just with us on the Republican side, but actually with all of us; all 50 of us governors, most of whom will be in town this weekend and all of who come Sunday night to the White House for dinner. And then Monday morning, we’ll all be at the White House to meet with the president and the vice president. I think it’s a given that there’s going to be a repeal [of the Affordable Care Act]. I think most of us are focused in on the replace and the reform that we’d like to see happen. It’s not enough just to replace Obamacare, which we think can be done in a way that is good or better but in a way maybe different than the media thinks about, but then make sure we’re reforming it particularly for the governors.
Look at Medicaid. Right now that’s the biggest, growing part of most states’ budgets. It’s a really important part because the states overwhelmingly do the administration of that. I think for the administration and for the folks we’re going to meet with from the House and the Senate, we’d like to make sure we’re at the forefront of helping shape the reform, as well as the replacement.
Hohmann: Are there specifics—is it waivers? Is it more than waivers? Is it block grants?
Walker: Well, in the short term, certainly, waivers on this and a whole bunch of other things. But I think long term, we really want to see a structural change out there that is not necessarily a block grant, although the House for years has talked about block grants. To me, you could have even something short of that as long as it just didn’t set states up for failure.
I think the concern of governors, not just Republican governors, but governors on either side of the aisle, is give us a base, give us a foundation upon which we can help slow the growth curve. But you can’t cut Medicaid. I mean, there’s just no way about it. There’s a base population in our state. For example, even under Obamacare, we were able to do something unique to Wisconsin, unlike any other state. We didn’t take the expansion. We didn’t do the state exchanges. But yet, for the first time in our state’s history, we covered everyone living in poverty under Medicaid. For everyone above that, we helped them transition into the marketplace.
The good news for our citizens is some of those folks were using the subsidy under Obamacare, presuming there’s some sort of a tax credit or other financial incentive that’s more market driven than government driven. They can still access that and get very similar, if not better coverage in that regard.
We’re in an optimum position. Not everybody was in that, and we want to make sure we help other states to get to a position where they could do something similar to that going forward.
Hohmann: Do you have any firm asks during your meetings in the next 72 hours?
Walker: For us, it’s not just these physical meetings. We’ve been talking since the election to folks. Again, not only in the administration, but the House and the Senate. A number of the executive actions they took, many of us in the states felt like there was an overreach by the previous president in terms of executive actions. Not only in the substance of the policy, but just philosophically, going above and beyond what the president’s normal executive powers are. They’ve started to rein that in, which I think, generally, is pretty good.
On President Trump’s first month in office
Hohmann: How do you think Donald Trump has done during his first month in office?
Walker: Actions speak louder than words. There’s a lot of talk about comments and Tweets. I tend to believe, not just this president, but with governors and any others coming in, you want to see what they’re doing in the first month. Usually the measure is the first 100 days, first 200 days. I think even the first six months are going to be the real test.
At least as governors, we were the most appreciative for some of the executive actions. There were some things that—for example, some of the actions of the past would have threatened as many as 20-, 21,000 jobs or so in manufacturing in my state alone and similar amounts in other industrial Midwestern states, like Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and others.
To see those changes certainly was helpful right off the bat, that they’re starting to either eliminate the things they can do right away, or many of these things require that the beginning of actions to reverse the executive actions of the previous administration. Those things have been good. I’m sure you’re going to ask some more in detail about this, but, obviously, there’s push back. But we’ve been there. We’ve seen that before.
Hohmann: You’ve been in public service for a long time. Donald Trump’s never been in elected office before. You’re right: actions speak louder than words, but words matter too. And there have been some missteps the first month. Obviously, you think he can get over those. What’s it like to watch some of that?
Walker: Well, having an elected official at any level, certainly the president who’s never been in office before or worked in government, is both a blessing and a curse. I mean, in the sense that there’s some things it’s great. He’s got a relatively low patience level for people telling him it can’t be done because it hasn’t been done before. And I think a lot of Americans like the idea that you can shake it up. They’ve been sick and tired of Republican and Democrats alike in this town making promises and not fulfilling them.
If he’s headed down that path of saying, “I’m going to do the things I said I was going to do during the campaign,” obviously, there’s going to be people who don’t like that. But I think generally—what we found in Wisconsin was—one thing you mentioned right off the bat. I was so eager to fix things, I didn’t talk about them. I just went in and fixed them. Because most politicians talk about them and never fix them. I guess if I’m going to be guilty of one or the other, I’d rather be guilty of fixing things as opposed to just talking about them. But I learned there. I would reiterate here that you got to do both. You got to continuously talk about it, and you’ve got to explain what you’re doing. Not just what you’re doing, but more importantly, why you’re doing what you’re doing.
The people may not agree with every single step you’re taking, but it’s a lot easier to appreciate someone if you know why they’re doing it. If you see their motives and what they’re doing here. And so that would be again, not just for the president, but really for the House and the Senate.
The Occupy movement didn’t start at Wall Street. It started on my street in Madison, Wisconsin. When they occupied the capitol — over 100,000 people – and what we learned is we let people speak. We let people be heard. We’d go to public sessions where we’d get interrupted and all the sorts of things they’re seeing here now. We tried not to respond in kind to just keep plowing forward.
Most vividly, I remember a question a reporter had at one point, when the whole capitol square was surrounded, the capitol itself was filled and this reporter said, “Well, you hear all these voices out here. Don’t they have a right to be heard?” I said, “Yeah.” I said, “Sure they do. That’s what great about America. You can protest your government. As long as you abide by the laws, there’s not going to be retaliation for that as there are in other countries out there.”
But then I followed up with that reporter and said, “But it’s also important to recognize, from my point of view, that the noise of the protesters isn’t going to drown out the voices of the majority of the people who voted me in to do the things that I’m going to do.” And even though some people disagreed with what I was doing, the fact is, people voted me in because I laid out a clear plan, a clear agenda. We saw that through.
Today, six years later, this last year, more people were employed in our state than ever before. Unemployment rate is at a 16-year low. Our percentage of people working is one of the highest in the nation. Our schools, for which some protesters said were going to fall apart, every one of our kids get ACT tests in 11th grade. We’re one of the top states in the nation for that and we have one of the highest for graduation rates. We went from a $3.6 billion budget deficit to now, continuously having surpluses for which we’re now, in our budget, investing more money into K through 12 education than ever before.
Why? Because we have a reform dividend. We’re actually reinvesting that and, over eight years, over $8 billion worth of cumulative tax relief, higher than ever investments in technical colleges as well as K through 12. The reforms worked. But it was because we were steady and persistent in following through on it.
What he learned from his battles with trade unions
Hohmann: You said a couple weeks ago, at a rotary meeting in Wisconsin, that you’d talked to Mike Pence about what lessons they could learn here about taking on the public-sector employee unions. You mentioned what the reforms had done. Where do you see that going? What was your advice, and do you actually see it being applicable at a national level?
Walker: Long before I talked to the vice president about this Newt Gingrich, former Speaker Gingrich, has been on this for quite some time. He was very intrigued with what we did. And even during the campaign, a number of times publicly, I think he’d said on a number shows and interviews that he had hoped the new administration would look to Wisconsin and some of the things that we had done.
Of course, some of the media, at that time, jumped on it and thought that that meant targeting unions. And that’s not the case at all. The larger lesson learned from what we did had very little to do with unions, and more in terms of how we run government. The best long-term thing that we did was for example, in our state, because of our changes in collective bargaining at the federal level, there’s really essentially not collective bargaining for wages and benefits. It’s mainly for work rules.
I think that’s an area where it’s ripe for attention because we did Act 10, but we also did civil service reform. And what that allowed us to do is to get rid of seniority and tenure and instead put in place a system that hires based on merit. The pay is based on performance. And we found not only in our schools, but elsewhere, you can put the best and brightest in positions, just like people do in nonprofits and businesses all across America, and hold people accountable.
One of the biggest frustrations I’ve felt for years, not just as a governor, but as a private citizen, is that the federal government, while there’s a lot of great public servants who work here and across the nation, there’s also plenty of examples of where things have really gone bad. And there’s very little ways to hold people accountable, or to replace people who aren’t living up to their expectations.
And while it’s not painting a scene in the sense that it’s not perfect in every regard, I just think any movement that they could make in that regard, to change things so that you could in fact, put in place more of a merit-based system and a performance. Not only for compensation, but just overall performance-based system would really help, particularly in the federal government.
Republican voters are ‘free agents’
Hohmann: In 2012, you won the recall by seven points. Six months later, Barack Obama won by seven points. I think your fight with the public employee unions was covered as Walker versus labor. You did very well among union households in ’12.
Walker: Almost 40% of the self-identified, at least in one exit poll.
Hohmann: And then in the reelection in 2014. Trump did well with sort of blue collar, working-class whites, union households, whatever you want to call them — and that was a major reason he won Wisconsin. Do you see them coming into the Republican fold long term, as part of a realignment? Is it still where they’ll vote for a Republican if think they’ll kind of tell it like is, but otherwise, they’re still going to either not vote or vote Democratic.
Walker: I still think they’re free agents in Wisconsin. I would imagine in Michigan, and Ohio, and other places as well, which I think is fine. I think we should never have votes that are a given. We should always have to earn our votes … and I think that’s certainly true of the group that you mentioned.
President Trump and Vice President Pence’s electoral success was almost identical to the maps we’ve had now three times, in ’10, and ’12, and again in ’14. And, if we run again, presumably, hopefully, in ’18 as well. It was a combination of things. I mean, yes, I’m outspoken differently. Yeah, I tweet. I’m a little bit different tweeter. I—
Hohmann: You tweet pictures of your lunch. [LAUGHS]
Walker: Yeah. My sandwiches in my brown bag and other things like that. So a little bit different styles, but I think in a sense, there was a similarity that those voters, like other voters in our state, and other battleground states, want people who tell it like it is; who tell what they’re going to do and then go out and do it. I mean, that’s going to be the test for him. As part of our success in ’12, and again in ’14, was people saying, you know, “I’m sick and tired of people telling me something and not doing it. Even if I don’t agree with everything you’ve done, I appreciate the fact that you’ve actually fulfilled the promises you made.” And that’s real helpful. … In the four years before I was governor of Wisconsin, for example, the state had lost 133,000 jobs. Unemployment in January of 2010 peaked at 9.2%. It’s now down to 4% unemployment. Like I said, the best it’s been since January of 2001.
But what I found, when I talked about jobs and the economy was it was not only who were unemployed, there were a lot of people particularly in the trades—so construction and manufacturing—who, even if they hadn’t been laid off during the recession, had taken a pay cut, or a reduction of hours, just to keep people working. I think you see what’s been brewing the last few years is not just people wanting to get working again, but a lot of those folks feel like during the recession, that maybe their pay was a little bit less, so their hours were less, and then, in turn, their household income was a little bit less.
And so they’re just starting to get back fully engaged in the economy again and they wanted someone who was going to champion. … I think the President’s right when he uses his phrase, of the forgotten man and woman of this country, who feels like everybody else has been kind of taken care of. They feel like the rich are being looked for, and the poor have programs from the government, but the everyday, middle class, working family had been forgotten.
The ground work for that wasn’t just Donald Trump, as much as he kind of emerged on the campaign scene. But if you look at Ohio, with John Kasich, and Michigan with Rick Snyder, and Florida with Rick Scott, and Mary Fallin in Oklahoma, there’s a lot of us who, starting all the way in 2010, spoke to those voters. And then, because we delivered on our promises, those voters reelected all of us again in 2014.
Hohmann: I was covering the Koch donor network seminar a couple of weeks ago and you very passionately argued there in California, “You have to deliver.” … People want these things. They’re giving him a chance… What do Trump and Congressional Republicans have to deliver to satisfy some of these people who are, as you call them, “free agents?”
Walker: I think the big promises are fairly self-apparent. I think part of the reason why Mitt Romney, who is a good man and would have been a great president, failed to deliver on connecting with those folks. There’s things as simple as Obamacare. For people who’d had it with Obamacare, it’s hard to say that a guy who was a governor of a state that had something almost identical to Obamacare was going to have a compelling argument.
I think not only did Donald Trump make that, I think probably any of the 15 or 16 other candidates could have made that case as well this go around. When you have my neighbor, Mark Dayton, a Democratic governor from Minnesota, saying late last fall right before the elections, that the Affordable Care Act is no longer affordable because premiums were going up 67% in his state, it’s not just Republican rhetoric.
I mean, that’s something that people heard, and felt, and sensed. I think it’s a given that there’s just no way this administration and the Congress can go through the next two years and not have a repeal. The key is they’ve got to make sure that it’s not just the repeal that people want, they want to replace and reform. It’s got to be something that’s as good or better, but in a different way.
Somebody asked me yesterday, one of the reporters, said, “Well, how can they be as good or better?” Well, just moving people from one form of government assistance to another isn’t necessarily better. What we’ve been trying to do in Wisconsin, even before this, is to help people enter the workforce, to do more to enter the workforce. And so, sometimes, it’s completely different things than you might think.
Some of the changes we’ve got in our current state budget are, for example, to help people with disabilities who overwhelmingly want to work, but one of the biggest challenges is fear that the safety net that provides basic health-related services might slip away if they take a job, or take more hours. You extend that. You’re going to have whole maps [ph] of people who are going to aggressively want to enter the workforce with slight accommodations. Those are all really positive things.
So, Obamacare, they’ve got to make the change. They’ve got to not only repeal, but replace and reform. I think tax reform. Clearly, the president talked about border security and issues in that regard. There’s got to be things here. And dealing with ISIS.
On health care reform
Hohmann: What would you keep from the Affordable Care Act?
Walker: Well, I think technically you’ve got to repeal everything and then you got to start out with something new. You can’t say, “I’m going to keep anything.” You’re going to say, “I’m going to repeal everything. But here’s what our plan is—not what’s left over Obamacare.” I think things, like the coverage, for young people — well, I think preexisting conditions is a given. I think that’s pretty universal. I haven’t heard, any significant push back from Republicans as well as, obviously, Democrats who don’t think that’s a good idea.
But I think that the bigger question, and the example I give, again, from my own state is, so we help people above poverty because maybe I’m foolish, but I thought that poverty or that Medicaid was supposed to be for people living in poverty. So I cover, for the first time ever — never happened with a Democrat nor a Republican governor — we cover everybody living in poverty under Medicaid. But for those above, we help transition into marketplace.
In the past, they got it through the subsidy, I think, very realistically, if you do a tax credit component and then you got to work with the states because we’ve already started to talk about this. If they had an aggressive tax credit, or a similar sort of incentive out there, we would actually put bodies in to physically go out and help people who had got healthcare under a subsidy before, for purchasing their own health plan, to go help them physically, literally, go through the process to make that transition smooth. I think not only Wisconsin, but I think elsewhere across the country, it could work.
Hohmann: Do you think it’s important, as Republicans come up with their own plan, that people don’t lost coverage?
Walker: Yes. I think that’s the goal. The goal is – is it government driven, or is it a mandate? You know, is there a mandate, the government says that you have to have it, or is it an option? If you don’t want to, that’s certainly one thing. But I hear, and I understand, I appreciate these stories of people who have chronic and serious illnesses, but the assumption would be—at least my expectation of what they’d come up with—is there would be a way for every one of those individuals to be able to—if they don’t have insurance under their employer base, to be able to buy it on the private market, and be able to get coverage. That they wouldn’t be denied coverage for things like cancer, other things like that. That, to me, is just obvious thing, I think as part of this debate.
It is a little ironic. I noticed the other day, in one of the town halls I heard about somebody was talking about the troubles that they were having. And I thought, “Well, they’re having troubles under the Affordable Care Act. So obviously, there are parts of that that’s not working if they’re troubles right now.” They’re not having troubles because it’s gone away. It hasn’t gone away. They’re already having challenges out there. So that’s why, to me, I think the important thing is not just replace, it’s replace and reform, so that the way we look at it is better going forward.
On ‘free and fair’ trade
Hohmann: On trade, you’re a free trader. You’ve taken a lot of overseas trade missions… There’s this protectionist impulse that we’re seeing now in Washington. Does that scare you? You’re a movement conservative who came of age during the Reagan era. I reread Reagan’s 1977 CPAC speech where he talks about free trade, and how important it is, and how great it is. And that’s kind of not the message we’re getting from the White House. Does that worry you?
Walker: Again, actions speak louder than words. I want to see what’s actually—what happens. To me, I don’t think free and fair are inherently contradictory. What I mean by that is I still think we need to do trade with people all around the world. But I do think it makes sense.
For example, I ride a 2003 Harley Davidson Road King. Harley Davidsons are made overwhelmingly in Wisconsin, although there’s some in places like York, Pennsylvania. But if Harley Davidson wants to sell one of their motorcycles somewhere else, say, in Japan, I think the tax that someone pays for a Harley Davidson in Japan should be no greater than what somebody in the United States might pay if they want to buy a Honda or Kawasaki motorcycle.
To me, that’s fair. If it’s the same, going in both directions, that’s fair trade. But it’s also free trade.
I think free trade should also mean it should be fair. And if it’s on a level playing field, I’m overwhelmingly convinced the American worker can be with anybody in the world. Just give us a chance to play on a level playing field.
One other thing, just as a side, you know, whether it’s with TPP, or TTIP, which is not yet out there but has been talked about on the other side of America going to Europe, I think trade with all those markets is good, but not just as a Republican or a conservative, but just as a citizen thinking, most of these trade agreements are like gigantic. If it’s really about just leveling playing field, shouldn’t it be like a page or two? Most of these things have gargantuan-sized amendments and components. … One of the things we didn’t like about TTIP with Europe is the European Union wanted geographical preferences so that even though the best cheese in the world comes from Wisconsin [LAUGHTER], I should be able to make mozzarella and cheddar cheese, and it shouldn’t be just limited to people in those countries to be able to do it. We make colby cheese in Colby, Wisconsin, and if the Germans, or French, or Italians, or British want to make colby cheese, knock yourself out. We’d love to compete with you. But don’t make it part of some trade agreement that says you can only call it that if it comes from a certain region. Our sense is, you want free trade, it’s free for everybody, but make it level.
On drug testing for welfare recipients
Hohmann: Changing topics, one of your priorities this legislative session in Wisconsin is welfare reform, specifically, drug testing for welfare beneficiaries. You’ve talked about that in past sessions and it didn’t get done, even though you have Republican majorities. What’s going to be different this time?
Walker: Well, the good thing is, we have for more than just about the testing side because, for us, it’s a whole comprehensive method. We call it “Wisconsin works for everyone.” It’s beyond just traditional welfare reform. Although we do require able-bodied adults who want assistance for things like food stamps, or housing vouchers now, have to be employed at least 80 hours a month. And if for some reason, they can’t find employment—although I find that hard to believe, I’ve got 80,000 job openings on my my website, jobcenterofwisconsin.com. But if they don’t, the substitute is they could mix in employability training for part of that as well.
We’re seeking [to put in a system that allows us to ensure that welfare recipients can pass a drug test]. The previous administration bogged us down from doing this. We’ve already authorized it at the state level. We’re hopeful the new president, new administration, the Congress, will afford us and other states the opportunity to do that.
Not to be punitive. That’s what some of my critics say. It’s not to be punitive at all. In fact, I put millions of dollars, two years ago, in my last budget, to provide rehabilitation for anyone who takes a test and fails. Because my ultimate goal is to get them healthy. Why? Because every week, sometimes every day, I hear employers in my state say, “I have so many job openings, just get me people who can do two things. One, who have basic employability skills.” I’m not talking about large scale, skilled trades programs, although we do all that too. They just mean people with fundamental, employability skills, showing up for work, being there, when the time you’re supposed to be there. If you want time off, asking for it. You know, simple things like that. And then being able to pass a drug test. One of my sons just was away for part of the last year in Raleigh, working. He came back to Wisconsin. He’s at a bank, (working) in digital. He had to do a drug test. That’s not uncommon in the private sector. Certainly, in areas like healthcare, and transportation, and construction, where it really particularly pertains to what they’re doing.
So we’ve got all these job openings there. Why would we train all these people, get them all queued up, and then have them fail a drug test that suddenly sets them back from getting back into the workforce? But the federal government before said, “You can’t do that.” And so we’re trying to change. That’s just a prime example where there’s this incredible friction, or had been, with the federal government before.
Now, we go beyond that. We go beyond traditional welfare reform. As I mentioned, we do these expansion or extension of some of the programs we’ve provided for people with disabilities. We changed things as simple as—even for those who didn’t take traditional welfare—we provided subsidies for people working, for childcare. But there was this cliff that people would hit 200% of poverty, and then they’d fall off. They’d get nothing if they were above that. Well, duh. People weren’t taking more hours or promotions because they were afraid if they got to that cliff, they weren’t willing to lose their benefits.
Now what we’re proposing takes a little money up front. We think we’ll save it as the tail end, in the next two years, is we extend that beyond that 200%, and say for every $3 you earn, you pay a dollar more in copay, until you eventually get up to the point where you can cover it all. Those are things that most people, I think, on their own, without federal or state intervention in government would say, “Yeah. We just worked that out.” If somebody said to us, “Here’s my problem.” We’d say, “Okay. We’ll ween you off.”
If you’re an adult, just coming off of foster care, aging out, in the past, it was a huge challenge to get those people into the workforce. We changed the earned income tax credit and some other things to give a bigger incentive to help get into the workforce. There’s so many ways. And this is why I’m a huge advocate, not just on things like Medicaid, but on education, on transportation, and workforce investment, send those resources and responsibilities back to the states, because that’s where the real innovation is. That’s where we’re much more effective. We’re much more efficient. We’re much more accountable. And let us adapt, not only at the local level, but with public and private entities working together to solve these problems.
Hohmann: On drugs and the employability question, the big news of yesterday’s White House briefing was Sean Spicer basically suggesting that DOJ will soon start reinforcing some of these drug laws that haven’t been enforced. Wisconsin is not one of the states that’s legalized marijuana, but a lot of places have. Is that something you’d support the federal government [doing]?
Walker: Well, I’m someone who believes in the rule of law no matter what the law is. And if you don’t like the law, change it. And my sense is we shouldn’t pick and choose. I’ve argued the previous administration picked and choose which part of the Constitution it upheld. I don’t certainly think we should do that. But I don’t think it’s true of laws. If people don’t think the drug laws are timely or appropriate right now, then petition the Congress and the president to change them.
But whether it’s a state law, a local law, or a local ordinance, or a federal statute, I really have a hard time of saying, “If you have a law, somehow, we should look the other way and enforce the law.” If you have it, enforce it. If you don’t want it, change it.
On upcoming state elections
Hohmann: Let’s go back to politics. You are the RGA chair. This is quite a time to be a Republican governor. Thirty-three. It’s the most Republican governors in 95 years. We have two off-year governors races this year. Virginia and New Jersey, which I want to talk about. And then 36 races in 2018, including potentially yours. Are you planning to run reelection? What’s your current thinking on that?
Walker: I am planning to announce my intentions after the budget’s done in June. But I can tell you, for me, I always said, “The question is not, ‘Are you going to run?,’” but at a time when there’s more people employed in my state, this last year, than there was in the history of state before, why would I not run? I mean, that’s the logical question. When the economy is humming as well as it is; when we’re investing more in education than we ever have before; when we’ve done all these positive things, the logical question is, “Why would you not want to run?”
I would add to that again, not because of the person, but because of at least the possibility of a president and a Congress that are open to sending more responsibilities and more resources back to the states, that, to me, opens up this whole new opportunity. Because we’ve done pretty much the laundry list of things that you’d like to do we set from years ago. But you’re up to a point where many of the things now require the federal government to get out of the way.
It hasn’t happened yet. But to me, over the next year-and-a-half, as I watch what happens here, that excites me. I think, honestly, if Secretary Clinton had been the president, you’d have not much of anything going on here because you’d have at least a House, maybe a Senate, one party, and a president of another. And not a lot would happen here. And I think, for a lot of us, who want the next step being the federal government getting out of the way, that wouldn’t have happened. I think now, at least, it’s not a guarantee, but it’s a possibility.
I’m excited about that. I’ll make my my intentions known sometime, probably in June if the budget’s done. But to the larger extent, you mentioned those races so.
Walker: To this year, we think we’re totally in Virginia. We think in the Commonwealth we’ve got a great story to tell. We think we’ve got great candidates. The primary comes up in June—
Hohmann: And you’re going to stay out of the primary?
Walker: We don’t get involved. Although, full disclosure, I’m a good friend of Ed Gillespie. I’ve helped him in the past. Last year, when I was not the RGA Chair, but the Republican Governors’ Association does not endorse candidates out there… In fact, our key is we’re the ones who are typically there the day after the primary, ready to go up with ads.
Hohmann: Do you have a preference between Ralph Northam or Tom Perriello, about who emerges as the Democrat?
Walker: Why, I think both would take Virginia down the wrong path. I mean, you’ve got one who, as I called him out the other day, needed to apologize to the families of the victims of 9/11. I mean, my goodness. He compared the president’s election to what happened on September 11th, 2001. You can feel strongly for or against someone, but my God. I mean, what those families went through in Virginia, and in New York City, in the tristate area, and then Pennsylvania. I think it’s unconscionable to make that kind of comparison.
Oddly enough, you’ve got another candidate in New Jersey, one of the front runners who made a similar comment comparing the president to the leader of Nazi Germany. Again, you may have disagreements with him, but I think that’s he as well deserves to give apology to those families who were victimized, by the atrocities in Nazi Germany at the time.
But it shows you just how far left the Democratic Party has gone. I mean, the fact that these people are even remarkably considered to be in the mainstream of the party, and even the possibility of being nominees shows you how far radicalized the party’s become. And that that somehow is okay. I know I’ve said for years, I’ve challenged folks even in my own state for years, long before all this, to say, “Don’t just listen to talk radio. Don’t just listen to Fox News. Go out and talk to people who maybe don’t listen to any of those things.”
My goal is when I talk to people, I try to think of a family, for example, in Janesville, Wisconsin, where there used to be a jam plant, and try to think about dad, who works at a manufacturer, and maybe mom, I’ve met, who works at the community hospital. They’ve got two kids in public school, and they’re trying to work hard to make ends meet. How do I talk about things that matter to them? And all this other stuff, sometimes not with the left of late, but even on the right sometimes, most of that is clutter to them in terms of what they’re doing to try and make their lives better for themselves and for their children. And so, when I see these things, I just think, “How far off has it gotten?”
Hohmann: You mentioned earlier, in Wisconsin, you benefited to some degree in 2011 and 2012 because of Democratic overreach. When the protests got nasty, the sort of middle-of-the-road independent types gravitated toward your camp and other people thought they’d maybe oppose what you’re doing. But the recall was too much. You know, that you should get a chance. But if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, you’d basically be guaranteed reelection? There’s always a backlash to whoever the incumbent president is. It’s Wisconsin. It’s a blue state. Or a purple state, but Donald Trump’s president and historically, the president’s party loses seats. You have to defend—I don’t know the exact number. But there’s 36 races in ’18.
Walker: Well, I know the exact number: 15 of the 18 that are open, meaning our candidates can’t run for reelection, 15 of those 18 are Republicans today. Eleven of the 18, including me, are people who can run again.
Hohmann: Does that make you nervous? I mean, just the historical headwinds, how do you overcome that?
Walker: Two years ago, if we had a panel like this, how many people would say Donald Trump would have won the nomination? How many people would have said he would have won the presidency? I think norms are kind of thrown out the window. I think, at least, I found in my state—I believe it’s probably true elsewhere, but I know for sure in our state, because we are so actively engaged—for example, this past spring, we had the second highest turnout of any primary state in the nation. Second only to New Hampshire, where I think it’s ingrained in their blood to vote in primaries. But we have an active electorate and what I found there is when I ran in ’12, there were 11, 12, almost 12% of the electorate that voted for me and voted for Barack Obama.
Walker: I mean, to people who follow politics, that makes no sense, right? Politically, the president, the former president and I couldn’t be any further apart. But what our voters liked, that those persuadable voters liked out of both of us, whether you agree or disagree with our policies, was they saw us as doers. They saw us as people who push things, who got things done, who advocated for things, who had beliefs, who followed through on our promises, even though, I might argue which were successful and which weren’t good policies. And I think that’s really the key.
And that’s where, to me, I’ve seen in my state that, while the president is obviously a Republican, that probably even more so than ever before, people get that Donald Trump is unique to Donald Trump. And while there are things we like, there are also things that I may not appreciate. But it was really easy for me, during the campaign, when I looked at Hillary Clinton, I looked at Donald Trump, and I said, “There’s no comparison.”
In particular, after he picked Mike Pence, who I have immense support and confidence in. And then I looked at the Supreme Court and said, “It’s not just four years. It could be three or four decades out there.” And I looked at all those things. But I could easily dismiss when a reporter asks me something that I didn’t agree with the candidate and now President Trump. I’d say, “He wasn’t my first pick. I was my first pick.”
Walker: So it’s really easy to dismiss. And I said, “I helped somebody else win my primary in my state.” [He supported Ted Cruz.] But when I looked at the two, and I saw things that I thought fundamentally were disqualifiers of Secretary Clinton, but that doesn’t mean I embrace or support everything the president does and I think voters get that. They understand that. To me, elections are always about the future, not about the past.
Whether it’s me running for reelection potentially, one of other colleagues running for reelection, a Republican in open-seat running, or even a Republican in a state like Pennsylvania or Connecticut, where I think we’ve got a real shot to pick up a state, where those governors are really falling into hard places. In each of those cases, a Republican will win not because of public opinion about the President of the United States, a Republican will win because they have big, bold ideas that relate to people like the couple I mentioned in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Hohmann: You’re absolutely right. Republicans were able to successfully have a brand distinct from Donald Trump last year. Some of that was because his presidency was a hypothetical. Even if he’s in office, kind of the guy in the Oval Office that the gubernatorial candidates—especially the ones who are incumbents, you know, you have a record in Wisconsin you can point to. But if you’re running for an open seat, do you think they’ll still—that voters will fundamentally draw a distinction and say, “This guy that’s running in Michigan is not Donald Trump”?
Walker: Yeah. Yeah. Well, two things. One I’m actually an optimist. I actually think good things are going to happen. I think that the replace and reform is actually going to be better, and it’s going to be good, and people are going to see it. I actually think they’re going to do tax reform that brings American jobs back from overseas and stimulates the economy to get the three, maybe 4%, uh, GDP growth, which will help raise wages, and opportunities, and prosperity. So I’m an optimist. I actually think there’ll be good things.
But even if that’s somewhat neutralized, yeah. I mean, I think we’ve done it successfully before. I think regardless of what happens here, even if there’s a lot of good things that happen here, it is still incumbent. None of us running for governor in our respective states in 2018, even if things are going really well in Washington, are going to run on Washington because it’s against our nature.
We want things to be decentralized. We want the focus to be on our states. And so even if they’re doing things that I think are good, which is sending more of those resources, sending more of those responsibilities back to the states, and more importantly, back to the people, it’s all the more imperative then, as candidates for governor, that we spell out what we’ll do, then to take that ball and run with it, and make it even better for the people in our states.