The “elephant in the room,” now that Scott Walker has won a remarkable third election as governor of Wisconsin in only four years, is the presidential election in 2016. Well before the 2014 midterms, speculation was rife about Walker’s possible presidential ambitions, and his several trips to neighboring Iowa did nothing to quell it. It is widely assumed that Walker’s possible presidential ambitions are a major reason the national Democratic Party and its various third-party interest groups expended enormous resources in the unsuccessful attempts to defeat him.
There are many reasons for the Democrats to be terrified of a possible Walker candidacy for president. Most of those reasons can be summarized with two words: “Ronald Reagan.”
In 1980, Reagan ran against a wildly unpopular and discredited incumbent, Jimmy Carter (widely regarded as the worst president of the 20th century and, before Obama, a popular contender for the worst of all time). Reagan had been a successful two-term governor of the most populous state in the country. He was a well-known advocate for conservative values ever since his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech in the early ‘60s, hardly the Hollywood lightweight the Democrats tried to portray. In the 1980 election he carried 44 states with a positive, undeniably conservative message.
As an incumbent, Reagan bettered that performance in his second term, carrying 49 states against Minnesota Senator Fritz Mondale.
Though Walker is not the communicator Reagan was, neither are any of the other likely candidates, Republican or Democrat. Yet Walker does have several similar advantages.
Walker has political executive experience. He is now embarking on a second term as governor of a midsize state (Wisconsin has ten electoral votes, reflecting its two senators and eight federal representatives). Prior to that, he had been elected to two terms as county executive of Wisconsin’s largest and most populous county; his seat was in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.
His first term was wildly successful by any rational measure.
The previous Democratic administration had left an unconstitutional $3.6B hole in the state budget. Walker’s administration was able to balance it without raising taxes. On the contrary, taxes were reduced three times in his term without harming any core functions of state or local government.
Tuition at all branches of the University of Wisconsin has been frozen. Previously, it had been rising faster than the rate of inflation. Local and county governments have been given back control of their budgets, which previously had been held hostage to collective bargaining agreements with public employee unions that held a major influence on the Democratic Party and its politicians.
A number of other legislative initiatives moved Wisconsin from its dismal position near the bottom in job creation to fourth among the ten states of the upper Midwest.
Further, emphasis can be placed on “political” in the phrase “political executive experience.” Wisconsin is a deeply divided state, in some ways a microcosm of the United States as a whole. The last time Wisconsin electors voted for a Republican president was 1988. The administration replaced in the 2010 election was one in which Democrats held all but one statewide office, had control of both houses of the state legislature, and held five of the eight seats in the state delegation to the House of Representatives. The “Wisconsin revolution” led by Walker has almost completely reversed this. The Democrats still hold three statewide offices (secretary of State, sirector of Public Instruction, and one Senate seat), but everything else is Republican. And Walker did it with a positive conservative message all three times.
Walker has been vetted by the opposition as few politicians have been. The never-ending “John Doe” probes launched by sharply partisan Democratic Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, with full malice aforethought, turned up exactly nothing to blemish Walker’s record of upright probity.
Walker himself has emphasized — most recently on Sunday’s Meet the Press — a preference for presidential contenders with actual executive experience in the wake of the disastrous performance of Obama. Obama had never run anything prior to his election in 2008. However, Walker did name one exception whom he found to be an acceptable candidate despite lacking executive experience: Paul Ryan.
Ryan is a national figure due to his confrontations with Obama over budgetary issues as chairman of the House Budget Committee, and of course due to his run as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate. If Ryan decides to run in 2016, Scott Walker will likely not want to split the state party by opposing him in the primaries. Assume there will be some intense conversations between Walker’s people and Ryan’s people in the coming months.