Gov. Scott Walker’s approval ratings are in the tank. Only 41% of Wisconsinites think he’s doing a good job, while 56% disapprove of the way he’s running the state. His two biggest budget initiatives — the drastic cuts to public K-12 education and to the UW System — are opposed by 78% and 70%, respectively.
Yet, he has rocketed to stardom among Republican presidential contenders. He will formally announce his candidacy when the budget passes, probably around July 1. And if his numbers hold, he’ll enter the race vying with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for the lead in the early primaries.
What gives? How can a politician who is so unpopular in his home state, and whose major policy initiatives may get booted from the budget by his own party, be in such a strong early position for the nomination?
The short answer is that red-meat Republican voters don’t care about actual performance. It doesn’t matter that dismantling public employee unions didn’t result in a balanced budget, as Walker claimed it would. What mattered is that he dismantled the unions. It doesn’t matter that a host of regulatory weakenings, tax cuts and other “pro-business” initiatives have not resulted in a stronger economy compared to other states that did none of those things. What mattered is that Walker cut regulations and taxes.
In the world a lot of us live in we believe, naively I guess, that actual results should have some impact; that if a policy is tried and doesn’t get the intended results it should be changed. That was summed up best, I think, by Franklin Roosevelt, who said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
But that logic doesn’t apply in the Republican primaries. Those primary voters believe that less regulation is always good even if the evidence shows that it results in more environmental damage and no new jobs; that more guns are always good even if they have no impact on crime rates; that tax cuts are always good even if they grow deficits.
To understand the Republican Party today you have to understand the politics of the policy itself, not the politics of results. The question is whether Bush or anyone else will try to move the party back toward some sense of rationality.
It’s not that the party has to abandon its conservative principles. It just needs to evaluate its policies in terms of the on-the-ground results they produce. But before that can happen, somebody in the party has to actually care about the outcomes. That will not be Scott Walker.