David Michael Miller
Earlier this month Gov. Scott Walker introduced a budget for the states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. His budget is intended to be loved by the extremely conservative folks who show up at the caucus and elections in the earliest presidential primaries. For Walker, what is good for Wisconsin is beside the point.
There's no other way to explain the hit parade of ultra-right horrors that is his proposed 2015-2017 budget. A $300 million cut to the university system, drug testing for everyone receiving public assistance who doesn't own a professional basketball team, huge cuts in funding for public broadcasting, more money for private charter schools at the expense of public schools, virtual repeal of the Stewardship Fund that purchases land for parks and conservation, repeal of the state's "complete streets" law that requires that pedestrians and bicyclists be at least taken into account in road construction projects, and on and on.
And all of this was set up two years ago when the governor pushed through a tax cut that was predicted to turn a projected surplus into a deficit right about now. And that's exactly what happened. Now Walker is using the $2 billion deficit he created as the excuse to whack things he wanted to hit anyway. Tax cuts in the hands of an extreme ideologue like Walker are not about cutting taxes. They're about starving government and creating a permanent fiscal crisis that must be met with ever more severe cuts.
We could hope that all of this was just a drafting error, but it is instead very carefully calculated. It's shock-and-awe. There's so much that's bad about this budget that some of it is certainly going to go through. But in a sense it doesn't matter to Walker. This budget is first and foremost a political document to impress red meat conservatives, not so much in Wisconsin as in states with earlier presidential primaries.
As one Capitol wag observed, in Wisconsin these days, "all politics is national."
We have Mitt Romney to blame for this. After Walker's election to a second term in November it appeared that he wanted to move to the center. The Republican national playbook was to make comforting noises about getting things done, and the establishment wing of the party had, it seemed, reasserted control.
Walker pushed back against right-to-work legislation, discovered that his views on gay marriage no longer mattered and said that he wanted a quick and easy budget process. It seemed like the guy had gotten the memo.
Then Jeb Bush became a serious candidate, and, in fact, the presumptive nominee of the establishment. That still might have been okay if there was some competition for that support. But when Romney had his cup of coffee as a candidate and dropped out, it left that part of the field for Bush to sew up all for himself. Chris Christie has always been too moderate to get the nomination. He sealed his fate when he embraced President Obama in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
So, with the establishment wing of the party moving fast into the Bush camp, Walker had no place to go but far right. He now hopes to outflank Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and the rest and be left standing with Bush at the end. Nobody can see Walker as the eventual nominee, but second place on the ticket looks like a real possibility. Bush will need help to shore up his right flank, and Wisconsin is a swing state. While Paul Ryan didn't help in that regard, Walker has won three statewide races in four years.
With Bush winning back some Hispanic votes with his fluent Spanish and moderate stance on immigration, and Walker firing up the far right and possibly pulling Wisconsin into the red state column, it could be another bad cycle for the Democrats in 2016.
So there's no point in trying to understand the budget as a policy document. This budget is horrible for Wisconsin's future. We will be one of only a handful of states that has not increased funding for higher education since the Great Recession. Wisconsin, already lagging the nation in job growth, will likely sink still further. Walker is turning Wisconsin into Mississippi, only without the good weather in January.
But it would be a mistake to think he cares. All politicians are motivated by a measure of self-interest. In this way they're just like human beings. But I have never seen a politician so almost pathologically focused on his own success to the complete exclusion of what's good for the people he represents. Most politicians struggle with moments when what they know is good for the people in the long run is bad short-term politics. The best of them swallow hard, do the right thing and try to survive the hits.
But not Scott Walker. Clear-eyed and focused, Walker does what's best for very conservative Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and therefore for his own career.
For solace look to Santorum, Huckabee, Cruz and company. Walker's slight lead in Iowa may be the worst thing that could have happened to him. All those John Doe proceedings went nowhere when the stakes were just about Wisconsin. With a place on the national ticket on the line, it could be Walker's fellow red meat Republicans who sift through all that evidence and find the guns that smoke.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at Isthmus.com/citizendave.