Governor’s words matter, but his bad policies matter more

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.  Reuters photo by Yuri Gripas.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Reuters photo by Yuri Gripas.

What a way to introduce yourself to the American public. A few months ago, when people were asked about likely Republican presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, over half had no opinion or said they had never heard of him.

If people learned of Walker recently, it was for his answers to reporters’ questions. Asked in London if he believed in evolution, Walker said he would “punt on that one,” after refusing to address queries on the European Union, Ukraine, and the Islamic State.

Then Walker got pulled into the swamp of fact-challenged negativity toward President Obama.

As Walker sat near former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at an event, Giuliani said, “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

Walker first refused to say what he thought of Giuliani’s remarks, then said, “I don’t really know” if Obama loved this country and the former mayor wasn’t out of line with his comments. A few days later, Walker said, “I don’t know” when asked about whether Obama was a Christian.

For most American voters, Walker’s comments seem out of the mainstream and too attached to the extreme right.

What Walker said matters because somehow we’re off to the races already, the presidential and congressional races of 2016. Assuming Hillary Clinton runs, she’ll likely be the Democratic Party nominee and the first woman to head a major party ticket. Walker could be her opponent.

Governors are no strangers to presidential nominations and the presidency. Four of our last six presidents were governors.

And in evaluating governors as they run for the presidency, more than their rhetoric needs to be scrutinized. Their policies may provide a template for national problems.

Indeed, Gov. Mitt Romney’s approach to health care reform had the same key core elements — insurance exchanges with subsidies to help people afford private insurance — as the Affordable Care Act Obama signed, and which has substantially lowered the percentage of Americans without health coverage. Nearly 75,000 Mainers have coverage through the exchange.

Walker’s record as governor should serve as a warning to Maine policymakers.

What happened in Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota is as close to a natural experiment as one could ever see. The states are next to each other, have a history of fairly similar politics and their populations are quite a lot alike.

Both Walker and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton took office in 2010 amid terrible economic conditions, with high unemployment and high state budget deficits. Their approaches could not have been more different.

Walker slashed spending and cut income taxes while reducing the tax credits (typically lower-income) renters would receive, opposed a minimum wage increase and refused to take federal funds to expand Medicaid.

Dayton increased the tax credits for renters, created a new income tax rate of 9.85 percent for the top 2 percent, cut income tax for the middle-class and raised the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour while also indexing the wage to inflation.

The result? As Wisconsin’s LaCrosse Tribune notes, Wisconsin has “private-sector job growth that continues to lag behind the national average. The latest 12-month period numbers that ended in June show Wisconsin 32nd in the nation in job growth. Minnesota was 26th. Minnesota’s jobless rate in November was 3.7 percent. Wisconsin’s was 5.2.”

Wisconsin has a $2 billion deficit, while Minnesota has a $1.2 billion surplus, even as Walker cut education and transportation spending and Minnesota increased both.

Forbes ranked Wisconsin 32nd best for business, with Minnesota ranked 9th best.

Politico reports that, “Walker is using budget gimmicks to postpone more than $100 million in debt payments.”

Walker, a member of what columnist Jonathan Chait calls “the Republican anti-math wing,” holds firm to his belief that tax cuts boost state revenues and jobs.

Maine’s economic growth continues to lag the rest of New England and the nation. Evidence about what works should guide our direction.

You have to agree with the LaCrosse newspaper that, “Economic measures of income and employment clearly favor Minnesota. At least Wisconsin has the Packers.”

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.