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As the cliché goes, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Or perhaps, Gov. Walker wants history to repeat itself. I suspect he does. It’s the history of his idol, Ronald Reagan, that is illustrative here.
People are missing a lot of what’s behind Walker’s war on universities. When you understand that history, so-called gaffes – or the timing of things like Right to Work – start to look more like planned narrative. When people say Walker "has" to do things like proposing to cut the UW budget the most in its history because he chose to reduce taxes, for example, they are missing broader points.
First of all, in a budget that grows state spending and increases debt in some areas – like roadbuilding – spending cuts begin to look a lot more like a choice than a necessity driven by previous policies (which themselves were choices, of course). Walker didn’t have to cut the UW this much. He wanted to.
The question is why.
The media reported (but it didn’t get much attention) that, without removing the UW off the books through his Public Authority plan, Walker’s budget, from all money sources, would have increased spending by $3.1 billion. This was documented by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. That’s rather stunning. Stating the obvious, it would be hard to run for president on that.
So I don’t think Reagan was the only reason behind the latest Walker war. I think a budget shell game was part of it.
But I do think the Reagan template matters. Let’s just say that the narratives are strikingly similar whether it comes to unions, food stamps or universities. Walker is a student of political history. He’s lived and breathed it his entire life. From Reagan’s history, we can see more clearly what Walker is trying to do here.
The governor has been unabashed in citing his idol, Reagan. He’s been raising the air traffic controllers over and over again, for example, and repeatedly comparing his fight against the unions to Reagan’s fight against the controllers.
It’s obvious that Walker came of age during the Reagan era, so while a past generation of politicians (like Bill Clinton) emulated JFK, the younger Walker was formed during a different time. It’s been said that the way to understand a person’s politics (and persona) is to look at what was going on in the world when they were 20. When Walker was 20, it was the heyday of Reagan, of evil empires, tax cuts, labor battles and all of that.
That part is obvious, and most people get that already.
But what people may not remember was that Ronald Reagan’s political career was forged in part through a war against "liberal" universities and protesters, and he benefitted politically even when the protests turned so ugly that a cop shot and killed a guy. In fact, if you read up on history and Reagan’s 1960s-era war on universities as governor of California, it’s striking how similar the narrative is to what’s going on in Wisconsin now, at least superficially.
Let me repeat that. A cop shot and killed a guy, and Reagan’s political career wasn’t hurt by it. His career soared because he’d found a foil: anti-war protesters and liberal profs at UC Berkeley.
When protesters deluge on Madison to rally against Right to Work or Act 10 or to call Walker names on campus because of the cuts to UW, when this is their central response, this helps Walker. It helps him because it’s all part of what’s an obviously scripted narrative. I don’t think the protests bother him – at all – because they help define him; the protesters play the perfect foil. Just as they did for Reagan.
The angrier they get, the nastier they get, the more signs they wave, the more they play that role. Walker is a leader who defines himself and builds up a base of followers by labeling and demonizing others. This is why the protests didn’t rock him. Frankly, the unions and liberals who oppose Walker would be smarter to hold a series of press conferences in which they announce they are going to protest instead by holding a news conference every day for a week that highlights spending and borrowing in the governor’s budget. Now that might work.
He’s blended Reagan’s attacks on unions with Reagan’s attacks on universities.
Here’s a brief history. The Reagan protests centered around the campus in Berkeley after students took over an area on university property they dubbed the "People’s Park." Remind you of Madison, already?
When he ran for governor in 1966, Reagan made the campus protests – often focused on dissent against the Vietnam War – a central theme, according to numerous historical accounts. A 2004 historical account by UC Berkeley is titled, "Ronald Reagan launched political career using the Berkeley campus as a target."
The article quotes a Berkeley professor of sociology saying, "As a matter of Reagan's honest convictions but also as a matter of politics, Reagan launched an assault on the university." The article says Reagan’s strategy was twofold: put "the welfare bums back to work" and "to clean up the mess at Berkeley." You can see this reincarnated in Walker’s move to strip food stamp benefits from recipients who use drugs (he’s said this will help them get work), as well as in his war against the UW.
An assistant chancellor is quoted in that article as saying, "The governor (Reagan) could not intervene directly in the administration of Berkeley. The two weapons he had were verbal abuse and the budget. He heaped a great deal of abuse on the Berkeley campus, and particularly on liberals and liberal faculties. He even singled out sociology and philosophy as hotbeds. He tried to cut the budget. And, he did get Clark Kerr fired as UC president."
Sound familiar? Except that Walker seems like he’s found an ally in UW System president Ray Cross.
While Walker said taking on the protesters prepared him to go after ISIS by demonstrating he’s strong, Reagan used rhetoric to align the protesters with that era’s bogey man: the Communist threat, calling the campus a "haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants."
The media went wild over Walker’s ISIS comparison, and the '60s protest era was a unique time; it will be interesting to see whether a 1969 narrative can work in 2015. After all, the protesters in Madison aren’t protesting a controversial war; they’re a bunch of teachers who educate our kids and union workers in construction hats, along with some college students. The UW has a lot of alumni and broad-based support. And Walker doesn’t have Reagan’s folksy humor or communication gifts. And he lives in an era with fractured media. And in a country with changing demographics (the Reagan strategy might work with the base, but will it work with the country anymore). And ISIS isn’t yet an empire.
Reagan sent in the National Guard to oust the Berkeley protesters from the park, and the guardsmen clashed with the protesters, who numbered about the same as those who descended on Madison the other day to protest Right to Work.
According to an article in the Atlantic, Reagan didn’t back down; he doubled down. He held a press conference in the aftermath of what came to be called Bloody Thursday. He was not apologetic. "You’d bet I’m happy," Reagan said in the very contentious conference after being accused of running the university "by bayonet."
Can you imagine? Walker gets trashed when a few protesters get arrested and let go …
Why was it called Bloody Thursday back then? Because police descended on the park, and they ended up shooting and killing a man named James Rector. In what sounds like Ferguson, people were tear gassed, one was blinded and many were injured.
According to History.com, Reagan even shockingly said, "If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with, no more appeasement." A book on Reagan says he made the comment when speaking, not to the press, but to a "friendly audience." It makes some of Walker’s comments look absolutely tame.
Reagan also used the budget to attack the universities, although in the end, he raised spending for higher education and professor salaries were raised, according to the book "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power." Some newspaper writers at the time accused Reagan, though, of harming the national stature of UC Berkeley (the UW-Madison chancellor said last week that Walker’s office has indicated to her he’s open to smaller cuts; the narrative is set either way).
And then there were the unions. The book "Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders" says that Reagan "acquired a reputation as the most anti-labor president in modern history." Although negativity in the press grew, the book quotes Machiavelli to describe the result of Reagan’s battles with the air traffic controllers: "The ferocity of this spectacle left people at once satisfied and stupefied." The Soviets, said the book, started trashing Reagan’s "brutal repression" (Walker’s comments on ISIS almost make me wonder if he’s read this book). In so doing, the Soviets played into Reagan’s hands (but the Soviets were not a theocratic movement; it will be interesting to see how the differences matter).
The book says, echoing Walker, that Reagan "had been looking for an opportunity to demonstrate in some concrete way its toughness toward the Soviet Union."
Yes, you can see the strands of Walker’s decisions, comments and policies in the Reagan story. And Reagan’s war against universities may be a lesser known chapter.
It’s worth understanding history. If you do, you’ll see the playbook and understand the plays. It’s all fairly predictable, really.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.