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More Wisconsinites are ticked off at Gov. Scott Walker than before. That’s what a new poll found last week. It’s hard to discredit it; it’s a Marquette University Law School poll that was widely cited leading up to the governor’s election.
True, it’s only one poll. And a month is forever in politics. And some people might be annoyed at Walker but will still vote for him again down the road (depending on his opponents). Better revenue growth might help things. But there’s no question that the swing in support is significant, at least as a snapshot of now. That’s because Walker’s numbers have been so polarized for so long.
Specifically, Walker’s approval rating dropped eight percentage points to 41 percent. Just as ominous, there was a big shift in the percentage of Wisconsinites who think the state is headed in the right direction – 53 percent say it’s not; up from 44 percent in just October. That’s enough to decide an election.
I doubt Walker cares that much what Wisconsinites think about him. I think he cares more what Iowans and New Hampshirites think of him (and that’s part of the problem here). But he’s been running nationally in part on the argument that he’s won three times in a purple state. It’s less powerful to admit "but they don’t like me as much back home now. In fact, most of them would pick Hillary."
I think Walker would be smart to pay attention to this poll. When you’re running on the basis of how you’ve run our state, it would be helpful if people in our state like how you’ve run it. He should remember that the presidency is not a sure thing, and he might have to come back home to face an anxious electorate again here. Plus, we elected the guy on a set of promises, so we deserve better.
Walker sometimes seems encased within an impenetrable bubble of praise. I also think he’s running for president largely on a 2011 narrative. He is hoping the national types overlook everything since. Including what we think about him here now.
It’s not just the electorate that isn’t sold on the newest version of Walker, though; Republicans in the Legislature are increasingly bucking the governor on a host of issues.
So, here are the top six reasons that more Wisconsinites are annoyed with Walker:
1. The Kenosha casino
It’s not just the governor’s ultimate decision on the Kenosha casino that bothered people (although it did, a lot). It’s the way he handled it.
First, he dithered around for over a year, spending taxpayer money on a Michigan law firm to help him make up his mind. Then, he provided a clearly faux reason for killing it, arguing that the casino could put taxpayers on the hook for millions. Even top Republicans wrote him a letter excoriating this falsehood.
The Seminole and Menominee tribes took issue after issue off the table (unionization, financial risk to the state) and still the governor wouldn’t budge. The decision made no sense to most people. This decision cost the state a huge investment and thousands of jobs. Voters chose Walker to make decisions in the best economic interest of this state. Ironically, it now comes out that Walker’s Bucks arena plan COULD actually put the state on the hook for millions. Go figure.
The Kenosha casino was the first time that I noticed various conservatives growing unhappy with the governor. It was also the first time that a bunch of people in Wisconsin started to wonder, "Is the governor going to put us first or do those social conservatives in Iowa matter more?" And that’s key.
2. Who matters more?
I think there is a general and growing belief that the governor cares more about his political future than about our state. Again, this started with the Kenosha casino decision. He hasn’t been around much in recent weeks. Taxpayers may be growing uneasy by having to continue to foot the bill for overseas trips for a guy who wants to be president. Of course, the governor has to abide by stricter campaign finance limits when he announces he’s a candidate, but is it right to make Wisconsin taxpayers shell out for these overseas trips so he can raise more presidential cash? Yes, I get it. He was on trade missions to Germany and England. Whatever. People want a governor who is engaged here and will put our state’s interests first.
3. Economic progress
As Ronald Reagan once said, "In the end, it comes down to leadership." A series of issues have made it harder for people to feel confident in Walker’s fiscal leadership, which is his hallmark.
For starters: All the state debt. I missed the part in the conservative handbook that says a lot of state debt is a good thing. But now it turns out that the governor’s budget has more debt in it than Gov. Doyle’s 2005-07 budget. He also skipped some debt payments to plug the budget shortfall. I recall people bashing Doyle for these things.
Then there’s job creation. Walker can toss out this number or that, but job creation in the state hasn’t approached his electoral promises and remains sluggish compared to other states. We can "like" a candidate. But they need to deliver.
I’m also deeply troubled by the recent report that African-American unemployment in Wisconsin is worst in the country. What’s Walker’s plan for this? (and what’s Barrett’s? But he’s not running for president …) Incidentally (or not), Menominee County unemployment is twice that for white Wisconsinites.
And then there’s the big projected budget shortfall. Yeah, it was just projected, and now it’s been closed with a lot of painful cuts. But I think people recognize the shortfall was caused, in part, by policy choices. That trifecta – debt, job creation and budget shortfalls – is where the rubber meets the road. If those things were going swimmingly, the rest might not matter as much. But they’re not.
4. Not running on his real agenda
Voters had a right to know that, if they elected Walker, they were going to get Act 10. Yet, no one saw that coming. I follow this stuff closely, and, although it was obvious to me that he was going to do something with state pensions and other benefits, I didn’t see Act 10 coming either (I support Act 10 by the way).
Similarly, I don’t remember the governor running on the big UW cuts or on slashing Seniorcare or on signing Right to Work legislation or on reducing the power of various oversight boards or on gutting scientific research in the DNR or on stopping land conservation purchases or on cutting K-12 schools (again) or on a host of other issues in his latest budget. I just recall him bringing up Jim Doyle a lot in the debates and saying everything was great and rosy, and we didn’t really have a deficit.
People don’t expect a politician to predict every single thing they might do at election time. But people do expect them to be honest with us about the really big stuff that they announce a couple months after we vote them in. It feels like a bait and switch. Like people voted for one thing and got another. Why didn’t he run on what he planned to do? Didn’t we deserve to know? Could he have won if he had?
5. Recent policy moves
It was clear from the poll that people are very unhappy with some of the governor’s key policy moves recently. By whopping margins, people opposed the UW cuts, the K-12 cuts and public funding for a new Downtown Milwaukee arena.
But I don’t think it’s only that. Such measures were pushed on the public without clear rationale. UW, for example, is a hometown brand (disclosure: I teach at UWM; my opinions are my own and don’t represent the university). If you’re going to cut a hometown brand that deeply, you need to make a clear and convincing case for it. That’s especially true of a brand with such a quick ability to organize and with legions of powerful alumni. People didn’t buy the UW-Act 10 analogy because Act 10 was about unions in the public imagination, and this is about Bucky Badger (seriously).
As for K-12, again, Act 10 was about unions in the public imagination, but most people want their kids’ schools to not be pared to the bone. All of this is starting to look rather anti-education in a state that values it. And what’s the rationale for this other than having to plug a budget shortfall caused by tax cuts?
This is a pattern: Sudden massive cuts and changes are proposed without clear rationale or without including all staffers – in some cases, in a way that grows executive power over the legislative branch. For example: Not including a cabinet secretary in some of the big changes facing the DNR. And not having a clear answer for why the UW mission statement was rewritten. And surprising us with cuts to Seniorcare or the IRIS program in Milwaukee for the disabled and more.
I am not sure there was any way to get the public to buy into these policy choices. But the way they’ve been rolled out has been very problematic. In fact, when it comes to the UW cuts, Walker’s sort of stopped talking about them.
6. Acting like a weather vane on a host of critical issues
We tend to admire leaders who articulate a set of principles and then stick to them no matter what – even if we disagree with them. That’s our "unintimidated" governor’s calling card. It’s something I liked about George W. Bush. But Walker’s done anything but on the campaign trail.
Whether it’s shifting on ethanol or immigration or common core, he’s been bobbing with the breeze. This is one of the key things I don’t like about Hillary. She seems beholden to politics over principle. But it’s getting hard to follow all of the governor’s shifts in position on various things. All people and politicians evolve on some things and over time. But this many shifts in the midst of a presidential bid raises serious questions. It just does.
Walker has clearly staked out more conservative positions to win the GOP primary. This either makes it look to Wisconsin voters like he hid those positions from them before (or worse, misled them) or has changed them for political expediency now. It also may be putting him less in sync with Wisconsin voters who chose him for his stricter fiscal focus. It’s like he’s shape shifting into a new person. Who is Walker? And what does he believe? Does he stand for principles greater than his own election? Time will tell, I guess.
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.