Walker Hopes to Follow Engler Model

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Some years ago, there was a panel discussion of how American foreign policy is formed. The former U.S. secretaries of state that were alive at the time participated, and the moderator took the opportunity to ask Dr. Henry Kissinger if public opinion ever played a role in how policy was formed.

There was a long pause and finally Kissinger answered that when an important decision was to be made, there was always someone in the room that would say, “We can’t do that. It will upset the people who would never vote for us in the first place.”

It was a great line that drew the laughter of the audience, but it does illustrate a point. It’s difficult to govern if the number one priority is popularity.

When Governor Scott Walker took office in January 2011, the state was in a fiscal crisis. The operating budget was operating with an expected shortfall, and the coming state budget promised to be even more difficult with a $3.6 billion structural deficit.

Walker and the legislature passed reforms that brought the state’s spending under control by eliminating collective bargaining over benefits for state employees. Local governments and school boards were also allowed to take advantage of these reforms, and that allowed them to weather the cuts in state aid necessary to bring the state budget into balance.

(This success in bringing Wisconsin’s fiscal house in order without raising taxes is documented at the website, ItsworkingWisconsin.com.)

Democratic State Senators in Wisconsin fled for Illinois to avoid a quorum in the Senate in an attempt to block the reforms. Protests filled the Capitol Square and occupied the State Capitol.

Walker’s popularity plummeted. By May, Walker’s approval rating was at the lowest point of his brief time as governor. According to Public Policy Polling, 43% approved of Walker’s performance while 54% disapproved. Not as bad President Barack Obama’s current approval ratings nationally, but certainly not a ringing endorsement for Walker’s policies.

“But polls don’t balance budgets,” as John Truscott told the Detroit Free Press back in March. Truscott would know. He was the press secretary to former Michigan Governor John Engler.

When Engler took office in 1991, Michigan was in equally dire financial straits, including a billion dollar budget deficit. Engler led the push to enact welfare reform in his state and, just as in Madison twenty years later, the protests began. Before long the Reverend Jesse Jackson was joining the “Englerville” protests. At one point in 1991, Engler’s approval rating dropped to 18%.  It looked like he was going to serve only one term.

After voters passed an education initiative, Republican pollster Tom Shields doubted it would help Engler’s popularity. Echoing the criticism of Wisconsin Republicans 20 years later, Shields said, “Engler is too partisan to get a huge bounce.”

Then, as time passed, the public began to see the effects of Engler’s reforms. The budget was brought into balance without raising taxes. The state soon had a budget surplus, and unemployment fell below the national average.

Engler was re-elected easily in 1994 and 1998 with over 60% of the vote each time. Before Engler’s time in office came to an end, he cut taxes 32 times, saving the taxpayers $20 billion. He was responsible for the creation of 180 charter schools and reduced the state’s welfare rolls by 70%. Perhaps most relevant to the Walker experiment, Engler reduced the state workforce by 20 percent, excluding state troopers and prison guards.

Walker’s approval rating also appears to be rebounding as the public is discovering that the sky is not falling as a result of Walker’s budget reforms. Walker’s approval rating has crept up from 43% in May to 47% in October. His disapproval rating has dropped from 54% to 51%. Still not where an incumbent wants to be, but not catastrophic for Walker, and certainly not as bad as Engler’s worst days.

Most encouraging for Walker, his approval rating among independents has gone from 40% to 52% while his disapproval rating has dropped from 56% to 44%.

The irony of the recall effort is that it may allow Walker and the Republicans to spend huge sums of money to promote the successes of Walker’s reforms, which in turn may actually drive his popularity higher. As it stands now, momentum for a recall of Walker seems to have stalled with 49% of those polled still against it. Among independents, support for a recall of the governor has dropped from 50% in May to 40%.

Weiss’ Law, created by former New Berlin School Board member Matt Weiss, famously says, “Nobody ever thanks you for cutting spending.” Perhaps not. But given a little time, the public might at least be forgiving, especially when they see the results.