Scott Walker’s Weak Wisconsin Record

What His Candidacy Says About Today’s GOP

Republican Presidential Candidate Scott Walker’s Record as Governor of Wisconsin Is, Objectively, Hardly an Asset, Especially When It Comes to the Economy, and, What the Republicans’ Fling with Walker Says About the State of Today’s Republican Party

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse September 16, 2015  

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) September 16th, 2015

UPDATED September 22nd: Walker, no surprise, has dropped out of the race.

Steve Apps- State Journal

AMMAN  When it comes to politics, I am much more of a policy guy than a personality guy.  I love wonk, and disdain showmen.  I was far more excited about John Kerry as a candidate than Barack Obama (not to say I wasn’t excited about Obama, just not as much as Kerry).  I also was/am more excited about Hillary than Obama for precisely the same reason.  In other words, I care much more about a politician’s record and specific plans than about “character,” “values,” or any of the other more amorphous concepts that are constantly bandied about in our rather thin political discourse.

When it comes to Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s controversial Republican governor, we may be satisfied in knowing that there is a clear record on which we can judge him.  So judge him on this record we must if we are to fulfill our duty as citizens of this republic when we consider for whom we will be voting.  Thus, below, there will be a discussion of the record of this man as Wisconsin’s governor and a concluding discussion of how this record either makes him worthy of consideration for high national office or, conversely, merits him as unworthy of such consideration.

Wisconsin Before Walker

Of course, to judge any record, context is required, so we must examine what Wisconsin was like before Scott Walker became governor.  Obviously, the years before Walker took the office of Governor of Wisconsin in January of 2011 were tough ones for America and Wisconsin, being the years of the Great Recession (2008-2009).  Still, the recession in Wisconsin was not as severe as it was, on average, in the United States as a whole.  Whereas the U.S. as a whole saw employment fall 5.6%, Wisconsin’s employment rate fell by 5.2% (meaning Wisconsin held onto over 7% more of its jobs), and by 2012, Wisconsin recovered 96.7% of its 2010 pre-recession employment level, whereas the U.S. had only recovered 95.3%.  In the year-and-half before Walker took office—a period that was officially after the end of the Recession—Wisconsin actually had an impressive recovery under two-term Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, in office since 2003: Wisconsin added jobs at a faster pace than the U.S. as a whole and most individual states, the value of publicly-traded Wisconsin companies was up 40%, and tax revenue was up 50%.  Additionally, a collaborative effort of a team of leading academics came up with an “Economic Security Index” measurement involving employment, medical care, wealth, and family arrangements meant to demonstrate the level of economic insecurity (i.e., the level of large economic losses for people year-to-year) in each state; in the accompanying reports, it was found that, after New Hampshire, Wisconsin actually had the lowest rise in economic insecurity from 2008-2010 out the forty-eight continental states and the District of Columbia (Hawaii and Alaska were outliers and difficult to measure), covering the entire period of the Great Recession and all of Wisconsin’s recovery period before Scott Walker assumed office.  Another measure, the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States, which looks at a range of economic indicators, ranked Wisconsin 20th-best out of all states for Doyle’s 2007-2010 second-term (the same rank applied for the single year 2010, the last year of Doyle’s governorship) and ranks the state #10 overall from the end of the recession until Doyle let office.  Doyle’s second term rank was up from ranking #42 throughout his first term.  Unless one would make the argument that Doyle as governor had no effect, it would seem he managed the Great Recession and recovery relatively well, then.

Of course, there are a large number of factors affecting what a governor can accomplish while in office and affecting these outcomes besides just who is governor, but these statistics and measurements are certainly a necessary dataset to have handy in any discussion of attempting to measure Walker’s impact and performance as governor, which necessarily must be judged in terms of the situation he inherited and what he did with it.

Now you have something of a picture of how Wisconsin was doing relative to other states and the rest of the nation throughout the Great Recession, and before Scott Walker was able to have any impact as Governor of Wisconsin.

Walker Walks onto the Stage

Despite the fact that Wisconsin did better than just about any other state, as the Economic Security Index data makes clear, the people of Wisconsin still suffered greatly during the Great Recession, with about one in six people in the state losing at least 25% of their wealth from one year to the next during the period.  This was such a bad crisis, though, that that is actually a good record.  But one can’t really blame Wisconsin voters for not realizing that or feeling that; voters don’t pay attention to the idea that their relatively less devastated status is better than most, they think more about the fact that they are still devastated.  This translates into anti-incumbent-party feelings.  In fact, in America in general normal people have been struggling during this recovery.  A not insignificant minority of people have been left behind by (and out of) the recovery; far more workers are being paid at or near-minimum wage salaries, and wages are stagnant (this being a persistent problem and having been so for thirty-five years) and not even keeping up with inflation unless you are at the top of corporate structures.  In fact, most of the jobs that have been added during the recovery have been low-wage jobs, not the type of jobs needed to sustain a middle class or social mobility,   Overall, the recovery has been pretty uneven.  Even if someone is going a good job as a leading politician, inevitably under such circumstances, that politician and his party will get some of the blame.

Walker ran primarily on creating jobs (promising to add 250,000 by the end of his first four-year term), cutting government spending, and lowering taxes, and won by close to six percentage points because of voters’ worriesregarding jobs and the economy.  With so much anxiety about the economy, it’s not surprising that he was able to beat a Democratic candidate after a such a painful recession that occurred when a Democrat was in the governor’s mansion.

Walker’s Wisconsin

As for Walker’s big campaign promise of creating 250,000 new private-sector jobs in his first term, he has fallen far short of that promise.  All total, with the final adjusted numbers, Wisconsin saw 129,154 jobs created in the four years of Walker’s first term, from January 2011-December 2014; that’s barely over half the jobs he promised to create.  Furthermore, the vast majority of these have been low-wage jobs even though the vast majority of the jobs Wisconsin lost in the recession were not.  In 2014, Walker’s best year for job growth, the state ranked only #38 overall and 35,759 private-sector jobs were added (this coming from far-lower, far-more-accurate revised data that corrected misleading preliminary data); his four-year average for private-sector job growth in his first term was only 32,288.5 jobs.  Exceeding this average, Doyle’s final year as governor in 2010 saw the state gain 33,658 jobs.  Walker’s first year of 2011 saw the state gain only about 28,000 private-sector jobs but it should also be noted Walker eliminated about 8,000 government jobs that year.  Adding in the loss of government jobs, for much of 2011 Wisconsin had the worst job numbers in the country.  It continued to lag behind most of the rest of the nation for the rest of Walker’s first term.

In general, while the state exceeded the national average rate of job growth during Doyle’s last year as governor by 0.38%, in Walker’s first term as governor, the state was behind the national rate of job growth by 0.59% in 2011, by 0.66% in 2012, by 0.77% in 2013, and by 0.9% in 2014; this means that, even in 2014—what was the most impressive year for job-creation under Walker—the state under his leadership only added jobs at 59% the rate of the nation, seeing its biggest percentage gap in the rate (1.3% growth in Wisconsin vs. 2.2% nationally).  Another poor indicator for Walker’s first term is that the state ranked well in the bottom half (#35) in private-sector job growth in terms of a percentage increase.  In any event, the number of jobs created under Walker is not in any way impressive or a record to point to that would make him presidential material. 

Also under Walker, the African-American unemployment rate in Wisconsin (19.9%) is the highest in the nation and by far (Nevada has the second-highest with 16.1%).

Looking at other factors beyond only (but including) employment, the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States looked at Wisconsin from 2011-2014, the period of Walker’s first term, and ranked Wisconsin #35 out of all the states in terms of a range of economic indicators; all of Wisconsin’s neighbors fared far better (Michigan was #3, Illinois #14, Iowa #18, and Minnesota #19).  This #35 ranking was down from the #20 ranking for Doyle’s second term and the #10 ranking the the period of recovery after the recession under Doyle.

The website Wall St 24/7 has been publishing rankings of how well each state is run; Jim Doyle handed off a Wisconsin to Scott Walker in January 2011 that, ranked on data (mostly) from 2010, was #16 overall (the higher the ranking, the better-run the state, based on methodology that took into account unemployment, state credit ratings, per capita debt, crime rates, foreclosure rates, high-school completion rates, change in home values, poverty rates, and health insurance coverage rates).  This ranking had fallen to #26 for data covering the year 2013, using similar methodology

Similarly, CNCBC does a ranking of the states in terms of being best for business, and one of the categories is “quality of life,” an index that includes data for the crime rate, protections against discrimination, health insurance coverage, health care quality, healthiness, local attractions, and/or environmental health; for 2010, Doyle’s last year as governor, Wisconsin ranked #19 in this category; four years into Walker’s tenure as governor, Wisconsin rank has dropped to #23 in quality of life.  The same survey had a cost of living index, which ranked Wisconsin #23 in 2010, but saw it drop to #28 in 2014.  The survey’s ranking of each state’s economy overall put Wisconsin at #22 just before Walker took over, and then saw it drop to #30 four years into his stewardship.

In its annual survey ranking which American states are “best” for “business,” Forbes ranked Wisconsin #10 for the year 2010 in its quality of life measurement (taking into account data on schools, health, cost of living, and crime and poverty rates); the same category in the same survey in 2014saw Wisconsin fall to a rank of #17.  In both the CNBC and the Forbes surveys, to be fair to Walker, Wisconsin saw a significant improvement in terms of being ranked good for business.  But in the end, there is an abundance of data relating a wide array of metrics that show Wisconsin to be struggling and/or place Wisconsin under Walker far behind many other states (including all its neighbors and the whole Great Lakes Region) and the national average, metrics that that make it very difficult to argue that Scott Walker has been good for Wisconsin’s economy.  The numbers at least suggest the possibility that Walker’s policies might have slowed and blunted Wisconsin’s recovery.  What is clear in both the CNBC and Forbes surveys is that the rise of a better pro-business environment came at the expense the quality of life of Wisconsin’s residents.

Walker’s Wisconsin is also facing a massive $2.2 billion budget deficit, when not long ago, predictions were for a surplus; rather unsurprisingly, the tax cuts enacted by Walker failed to bring in the revenue he promised they would (tax cuts generally don’t bring in revenue but Republicans don’t seem to notice this reality and prefer to keep that myth as a article of faith) and now Wisconsin’s budget is a mess.

A final interesting tidbit on the economy: Walker signed a repeal of a lawthat forced companies to give retail and factory workers at least one day a week off from work…

As for those quality of life issues that saw the related ranking drop in multiple surveys, let’s begin with poverty.  In 2010, before Walker took office, Wisconsin had 10.1% of its population living in poverty, and had the fifth-lowest poverty rate in the nation.  By 2014, after four years of Walker as governor, the poverty rate had risen to 10.9% and, more tellingly, Wisconsin had dropped to #13 for the lowest poverty rate rankings, providing even more evidence of how badly Wisconsin’s recovery has stalled under Walker. 

Moving onto education, Walker has overseen the largest cuts to public education spending in Wisconsin’s history.  Aside from just cutting one-quarter of a billion dollars from Wisconsin’s state university system and ending legal tenure for its professors, Walker’s new budget also cuts funding for most public schools and does not even keep up with inflation for the schools that aren’t facing funding cuts.  On top of this, Walker is diverting precious funds towards vouchers for ineffective, now-thanks-to-Walker relatively unaccountable, and often religious-based private schools and he does this based on an anti-government ideological basis (Walker and his associates also have unseemly personal and financial ties to the state’s private education lobby/industry, it should also be noted).  In general, Wisconsin under Walker has seen some of the most severe cuts for education spending in any state.  In fact, a number of school principals in the state have publicly complained about funding and curriculum issues.

When it comes to healthcare, America’s Health Rankings®, from the United Health Foundation, has provided yearly rankings of state health care longer than any other entity in the U.S.  The index measures state performance in a wide variety of metrics spread out across four major areas: behaviors, community and environment, policy, and clinical care; in 2010, before Walker came into office, the state ranked #18 overall; at the end of Walker’s first term in 2014, it has fallen to #23, the lowest rank it had ever received in the twenty-five years of the survey.  One of the three highlighted “challenges” facing the state was “low per capita public health funding.”

That does not cover every issue in the state, but it sure does cover a lot, and Wisconsin does not look too good under Walker.

Why Walker?  The Governor and the Decline of Republican Seriousness

What was Walker good at, you might ask?  Taking on unions.  That he would wage war against them was clear from the beginning.  He severely limited the ability of state workers in Wisconsin to collectively bargain.  This prompted such a severe backlash that Walker became the third governor in U.S. history to be subject to a recall election (an election that basically allows people to schedule another election to be able to remove an elected official from office before the end of that official’s term by electing someone else as a replacement).  Unlike the other two governors from America’s past, Walker won the recall election in 2012 and stayed in power.  He also managed to win reelection in a tough race in 2014.  Three months into his second term, he was able to deal a major blow to private-sector unions in Wisconsin by hurting their ability to maintain membership and influence with the passage of “right to work” legislation.  In political terms, Walker crushed unions in a state that had a long historical legacy of union strength.  Never mind that unions are good for wages, reducing inequality, and the social mobility of union workers’ children in an era where wages, inequality, and social mobility are all growing major problems; Walker has won the labor battle in Wisconsin for Republicans.

Walker also likes to brag that he won three elections in four years, including the recall election and his reelection after his first term, but multiple solid analyses have shown that these wins are not as impressive as he would have voters believe and do not mean much for prospects at winning the presidency, in part because they have occurred in off years where Democratic voter turnout has been poor.   And yet, he is a very conservative governor that was able to win in a purple state, divided between liberals and conservatives, so that is a decent counterargument.

Unless you really hate government and unions—two big targets successfully decimated by Walker—it is hard to think of Walker as anything other than an unremarkable governor at best, a mediocre governor to be in the middle, or a failure at worst.  The fact that he was (I say was because Walker’s presidential star has dimmed greatly and all but fallen from the sky) considered such a great potential candidate by Republicans says much about the Republican Party today: it is concerned more with tearing down that which its constituents hate—unions, government assistance for those less fortunate, a role for government to play in education or fairness or health care—than it is concerned with actually building anything new; it is a party that seeks to destroy and undo, not to create and do.  Thus, Scott Walker—whose biggest achievement is destroying union power in Wisconsin and thus drawing the ire of liberals nationwide—is seen as a potential president even though his record on the major issues is quite mediocre.  Thus, a Donald Trump who insults and disparages and a Dr. Ben Carson who insulted Obama to his face at a public non-partisan prayer (!) event and calls Obamacare “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”—two candidates who have never held political officeand whose popularity has nothing to do with workable policy solutions—are the #1 and #2 candidates, respectively, in a Republican primary campaign that seems utterly devoid of substance as far as the front-runners are concerned. 

Walker’s popularity was just an early manifestation of the same type of politics Trump and Carson are perfecting.  Walker’s problem is that, while his policies were extreme, ideological, based on hatred of things (like unions, government) and negating them as much as possible, he tried to talk the talk of a serious, policy-minded politician.  This was clearly not what the Republican faithful wanted to hear; the meaner and nastier and more critical of Obama and liberals, the better.  Too bad for Walker, his policies, and not his rhetoric, are just what they are looking for, and that Trump and Walker have no real policies embodying this since they have no policy records but their rhetoric is music to the ears of Republican primary voters.  That Ted Cruz is often #3 or #4 and often very close to generally #3 Jeb Bush—a Ted Cruz whose entire Senate career is based on hatred of government and its negation—only shows this dynamic even further.  That’s right: of the top four Republican candidates, the top two have no political policy record and have never held office, and one of the others has only a record based on obstructionism and delay; but those three out of the top four spew venom and generally without serious policy solutions, and they are loved for it.  

See, following a policy record takes time, effort, and analytical brainpower.  Getting swept up by a speech is a passive act and requires little to no effort on the part of the listener.  Thus Walker is the thinking-man’s blind-hater-of-government candidate, but Trump, Carson, and Cruz are the candidates of the blind-hater-of-government who does not really feel like thinking but much prefers to feel.  All these people seem to have one thing in common: ignore people like Jeb Bush, a moderate who is willing to think about policy, and support the people who simply want to destroy what Obama has accomplished and care more about attacking liberalism than improving their own lives, or their children’s, or their fellow citizens’.  Aside from theatrics, it is a political nihilism that the most ardent conservatives and libertarians would find refreshing.

As Walker struggles on the campaign trail, don’t expect Republicans to pick him for their nominee; as Trump and Carson show, no record is better than meh or a bad record, and, perhaps, is better than having any record (see Bush’s problem).

Welcome to the Republicans Party in 2015.

More Election 2016 coverage from this author:

The State of Illegal Immigration 2015: Reality vs. Republican Fantasy

The Republican Field & Debate: Substance vs. Style: What Trumps What?

Don’t Dismiss The Donald: 4 Reasons Why Trump Could Win GOP Nomination

All Hail Hillary! Her Political Nature Is Just What Washington Needs

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