In his new book released this week, Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker reflects on the political firestorm he survived at home in 2012 — and diagnoses what went wrong for the national party.
In an interview Wednesday with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, Walker said that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney did not give voters an "optimistic, visionary view of how the presidency would be different under him," allowing President Obama's campaign to define him as a "rich guy who only cared about guys like him."
Romney's infamous "47 percent" comment didn't help counter that narrative any, Walker added.
"To win in a state like Wisconsin, I think people respect those even if — like with me — even if they don't agree with everything or every way I've done something, they respect people who are looking out for everyone, or at least attempting to, Walker said. "Unfortunately, Republicans did not carry that message forward at the national level."
Walker, who faces re-election in 2014, also had some measured criticism for the way congressional Republicans handled the last round of budget negotiations, which led to a federal government shutdown.
"I think the federal government, in particular, is too big, too intrusive in our lives, and needs to be narrowed and focused," Walker said. "But for what's left and what's necessary— for what really is necessary in government— we should make it work. And my frustration was, I don't think that shutting things down show that you can make it work."
Much of Walker's book recounts the divisive 2011 budget battle that has defined his political career. Just weeks after taking office, Walker proposed eliminating collective bargaining rights and cutting other benefits for most of the state's public employees. The move led to mass protests at the state Capitol and ultimately to a 2012 recall attempt in which he prevailed.
Walker, now a conservative hero who hasn't ruled out a run for president in 2016, told Montagne he has some regrets about how the whole episode played out.
"I was so eager to fix things that I came in and just fixed them without talking about them," Walker said. "What I learned, in retrospect, is you need to do both."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became a political lightning rod two years ago when he moved to cut benefits for public employees there; pensions, health care and seniority protections workers had gained over the years through collective bargaining. Collective bargaining was also in the governor's sights. The reaction by workers, union leaders and supporters from outside the state made headlines. Tens of thousands protested in the capital, Madison. At one point, protesters stormed the Capitol building, took it over, and camped out for weeks.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Gov. Walker eventually faced a recall election, and prevailed. Now he's out with a book relating events as he saw them. It's called "Unintimidated," and Gov. Walker joined us to talk about it.
MONTAGNE: Welcome to the program.
GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: Great to be with you.
MONTAGNE: Let's look back at the political battle that brought you to the attention of the nation. Reducing benefits was one thing, but trying to end collective bargaining for those benefits - that's when the fight got ugly. Even, at one point, you write in the book, your wife questioned if that was worth it. What did you get out of succeeding? Because you did, indeed, prevail.
WALKER: For me, it was eight years before I was governor. I was the county executive, a local official in Milwaukee County, the largest county in the state. We tried to do reasonable changes to avoid layoffs back then. Time and time and time again, the local union leaders would say no to what I thought were reasonable changes. And so when I came in two and a half years ago, not only Wisconsin, but most state across America were facing budget challenges.
And so what we did in Wisconsin is we avoided massive tax increases, which we thought would be devastating in the economy. And we avoided massive layoffs that many other states did because even though I believe in limited government, I don't think you get there through random pink slips. And the only thing left for us in our state, where a little bit over half of our budget is aid to local governments, we reduced that.
But as a local official and part of becoming governor, I knew if we didn't give local governments the tools they needed – and that meant changing collective bargaining – they really would have had to make tough cuts in schools and counties and municipalities and others. Instead now, not just for pension and health care contributions, but even for things as easy as bidding out their health insurance or changing their work rules, they're able to save tens of millions of dollars. That's money they can put right back into the classrooms, into pay raises, into other things, you know, that are driven not so much by seniority or tenure, but by merit and performance.
MONTAGNE: Do you, though, have any regrets about how bitter things got? Anything you wish you had done differently?
WALKER: Oh, yeah. There's no doubt. I was so eager to fix things that I came in and just fixed them without talking about them. And in part, it's because a lot of politicians talk about things and never fix them. What I learned, in retrospect, is you need to do both. Now, the irony of ironies is that originally, I didn't talk to people about the details because as crazy as this seems today, but I didn't want people to think that we were picking on public employees.
In fact, I remember once I was at a school in Central Wisconsin, and the second or third question - it was a teacher, who said: Why do you hate teachers so much? And I said: With all due respect, I would challenge you to go home tonight and type in something on YouTube and find any clip of me saying anything but good things about teachers and other public servants in the state.
The people who were telling them they were under attack were the union leaders - because it served their interests. They wanted people to be ginned up and tell them they were under attack, and come on out and try to draw attention not only in the protests, but attention to me and to the lawmakers. Since then, I've had teachers come up to me and say thank you. They appreciate that now, the one or two teachers out of the many that were great teachers - but the one or two who were underperforming and dragging the rest of them down, well, they're gone.
MONTAGNE: Well, several months after you beat this recall challenge, you won by about 7 points, although polls show that it was a combination of your supporters, people who actually liked what you were doing, and also Wisconsinites who simply did not believe in recalling a governor...
WALKER: Right. Yep.
MONTAGNE: That would be...
WALKER: ...just on principle were against it. Yup. Mm-hm.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, exactly. So months after that, President Obama won your state and a Democrat, Tammy Baldwin, won a Senate seat there by about that same margin.
MONTAGNE: You write in the book that Mitt Romney misread the message of Wisconsin. What, exactly, do you mean by that?
WALKER: Well, I remember at the time saying that Mitt Romney, when someone asked me - I think it was the day, literally, after the recall election - if Mitt Romney could win. I said sure, if he showed the voters in my state that the R next to his name stood not just for Republican, but for reformer. Instead, their campaign, as I point out in the book, really focused all their attention on what they thought was the public's frustration with the president and the economy and everything else; and didn't give them an optimistic, visionary view of how the presidency would be different under him.
And so they really, de facto, allowed the other campaign to define the R next to his name as standing for rich guy who only cared about guys like him. And that was a huge mistake in our state.
MONTAGNE: Well, yeah, but I would say you take something of a dig at him in the book, comparing Romney unfavorably to Ronald Reagan. You write: Reagan did not dismiss 47 percent of the country as a bunch of moochers, as was a famous Romney gaffe. That sounds like you're even saying he seemed to be caring only about the rich.
WALKER: Well - and right. I think for most of us, as Americans, we want to believe that our leaders care about all of us; not just those who vote for them, but all of us. And that was part of that frustration with that 47 percent, is it said somehow that he viewed one part of the country one way and another part differently. To win in a state like Wisconsin, I think people respect those even if - like with me, even if they don't agree with everything or every way I've done something, they respect people who are looking out for everyone, or at least attempting to. Unfortunately, Republicans did not carry that message forward at the national level.
MONTAGNE: President Obama has taken a real hit in the polls lately, with the disastrous rollout of the health care law...
MONTAGNE: ...but Republicans also took a big hit after the government shutdown. Now, the Tea Party got a lot of blame for holding such a hard line. Do you think congressional Republicans need to stop treating compromise as a dirty word?
WALKER: Yeah. No, I go back - and I said this in August, so it's not Monday morning quarterback, on my part, here. But in August, I said - in a number of places nationally - that I think the federal government, in particular, is too big, too intrusive in our lives, and needs to be narrowed and focused. But for what's left, and what's necessary - for what really is necessary in government - we should make it work. And my frustration was, I don't think that shutting things down show that you can make it work.
It's one of those stark contrasts I lay out in my book in great detail - the difference between Republicans in the states versus Republicans in Washington. Somebody asked me after the recall - they said, tell us a little bit about your austerity measures.
I said, what I did was not about austerity. If it was austerity, we would've just cut things across the board. Instead, what we invoked were reforms, longstanding structure reforms that helped us balance both our state and our local governments' budgets. Nationally, we need to do more of the same.
And the way you get there, I mean, I think most Americans understand that Republicans right now in the federal government only control the House. The Senate is controlled by Democrats. The president is a Democrat. And I think, for the time being, Republicans have got to find a way to go forward, and then make issues like Obamacare part of the '14 election. Make the debt and the deficit and the economy part of that. But don't shut things down when you don't have tools to take the next step forward.
MONTAGNE: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's new book is "Unintimidated." Gov. Walker, thanks for joining us.
WALKER: Great to be with you.
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