By M.D. Kittle|Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – You already know this about Scott Walker: Most liberals hate him, most conservatives love him.
That’s a political fact as immutable as any you will find in Wisconsin or national politics.
And Walker’s rejection of a boatload of federal Medicaid money on Wednesday didn’t win him any love from the left this Valentine’s Day week.
But the right – in Wisconsin and across the country – appears to have more to love in this Republican Party rock star who earned plenty of street cred for taking on public-sector unions and taking an ax to the state’s $3 billion-plus budget shortfall.
Walker’s right-trained speech calling for an end to “generational dependence on government” may – or may not – be just what a national Republican Party searching for its soul needs to get its political house in order.
Conservatives aren’t the only ones taking notice of Walker. Liberals nationally, too, are watching – with a combination of interest and horror at what may lie ahead.
David Heller, president of Washington, D.C-based Main Street Communications and one of the top political media consultants and campaign strategists in the Democratic Party, tells Wisconsin Reporter that Scott Walker’s national profile matches anyone in the Republican Party right now — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie included. That makes Wisconsin’s governor a very “plausible contender” for a 2016 presidential run, Heller said.
“He comes into a 2016 race standing for something,” said the strategist, whose clients have won 15 of 19 general-election open seat races for Congress, according to his website. “He has a niche, and that’s something most presidential candidates don’t start off with.”
Thanks to the unintended consequences of last year’s union/Democratic Party-led recall election that Walker easily survived, the Republican governor has something most other would-be presidential candidates can only dream of: Money, and lots of it.
Walker raised an unheard-of $28.2 million last year, much of it from beyond the Badger State’s borders.
“Because of the recall election, Scott Walker now has a national constituency and he has the ability to raise national money,” Heller said. “What other Republican governor can do that? I don’t even think Chris Christie can raise the kind of national money Walker can.”
Walker has made no public statements about pursuit of higher office, but plenty of pundits see the governor as a potential candidate for 2016, alongside fellow Wisconsinite and former vice presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville.
Joe Fadness, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, wasn’t biting on any 2016 talk.
“What the governor is doing now is what is in the best interest of the people of Wisconsin,” said Fadness, who previously served as campaign manager for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde.
Walker will have to think about the 2014 gubernatorial election long before 2016.
Pundits like John Rink, long-time political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, thought Walker had toned down his contentious approach in recent months, calling for bipartisanship at the start of the legislative session and pushing for more funding for liberal-friendly social programs like mental health services. But then Walker delivered his government-independence speech Wednesday, Rink said, and the wind changed.
“I’m really not sure what to make of it at this early stage. The wind is shifting,” he said. “You have to keep a hold on your base, and certainly that’s what Scott Walker is doing, setting up his next governor’s race to be largely about health care issues, I think.”
While the left may despise him, Walker remains politically safer in Wisconsin if only because the Democrats have failed to field a viable candidate to face him, Heller said.
“I haven’t seen that person yet. Sadly it’s not a deep bench anymore in Wisconsin. Who are the Democratic candidates?” the Democratic strategist said, noting Walker’s edge would change is former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold jumped into the race. All bets presumably would be off, too, should anything of substance directly involving Walker materialize in the lengthy John Doe investigation that has so far nabbed some of the governor’s old associates.
In a time of Republican rebuilding following President Obama’s easy reelection, potential GOP presidential hopefuls like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have called on Republicans to give up their “obsession with government bookkeeping.”
Walker has hitched his wagon to conservative accounting, with initiatives that demand worker training for food stamps, require more work searching for unemployment and expand state-administered Medicare without what he sees as the entanglements of public money. Of course, his plan to move Wisconsinites onto federally paid health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act still will cost taxpayers money, but he insists he’s merely playing by the new rules set forth by Obama and majority Democrats in the Senate.
“Government can provide a hand up, but should not provide a permanent handout,” Walker said in a speech at the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Business Day. “We need to break cycles of generational dependence on the government. Reforming entitlements, like Medicaid and unemployment insurance, puts an emphasis on independence and the dignity that comes with working hard to build a prosperous future of your own choosing.”
That’s the kind of talk — the kind of philosophy — that plays well with the conservative crowd.
Liberals? Now that’s another story.
“God help our country if Gov. Scott Walker is our president,” Heller said.
Contact Kittle at [email protected]