Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, talked about the government shutdown, the future of the Republican Party, helping the poor and his Christian faith, in an interview with The Christian Post.
In his new book, Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge, with co-author Marc Thiessen, Walker writes about his battles with public sector unions and the recall effort. Using lessons he learned from those battles, Walker has many word of advice for his Republican Party.
"Things may look hopeless in Washington, D.C.," he wrote, "but from where I sit in Wisconsin, the view is decidedly more hopeful and optimistic."
The Christian Post spoke with Walker about his book on Tuesday. Here is an edited transcript of that interview:
CP: Your new book, Unintimidated, is doing two things, as I see it. It, first, tells the story of your fight with public sector unions, and, second, it talks about lessons the Republican Party can learn from your experience. Did I get that right?
Walker: Yep. I think you're exactly right.
CP: For this interview, I'm going to focus on the second part.
CP: You write that, from your standpoint as a conservative Republican, things look grim when you look at Washington, D.C., but outside the beltway, at the state level, Republicans have been winning. I want to push back against that thesis and have you respond.
When you look at the groups that Obama did well with – nonwhites and young people, the future for the GOP does not look bright. The elderly will die off and today's young will vote in higher numbers as they reach middle age, and nonwhites will become a greater proportion of the electorate. So, given that, why the optimism?
Walker: I think if you look across the board, even with Barack Obama winning reelection last November, at the same time we moved up to 30 states in America, the biggest number we've had in some 12 years, that have Republican governors. And, along with it, there are nearly as many states with Republican legislative majorities.
You look at states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Nevada – all of those are traditionally battleground states. All are states carried by Barack Obama. All are states that today have Republican governors. Many, but not all, have not only Republican governors but Republican legislative majorities.
To me, there's a real difference there, and the optimism is that, somehow, these leaders in the states are connecting with voters. I have a theory about that, which we talk about extensively in the book.
CP: During the government shutdown, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), who was head of the Republican Governor's Association at the time, said Americans should look to Republican governors, not Republicans in Washington. You recently echoed that sentiment, in an interview on Sunday, when you said that the 2016 GOP presidential candidate should be a governor. Why not a congressperson or senator? Isn't three years enough time to recover from the embarrassing government shutdown?
Walker: I don't think it's the shutdown. I think there's a difference, there's a reason why Republican governors are winning in states that in the last two elections have been largely carried by Barack Obama. That is, Republican governors are connecting with voters by having an optimistic vision, by laying it out in terms that are relevant to where people are at, and showing the courage to act on it. That's a big difference out there.
For instance, in terms of relevance, when I go and talk to voters, constituents, taxpayers in my state, I'm not talking about fiscal cliffs, sequesters and debt ceilings. I'm talking about how to make their kids' schools better, how we're cutting the property taxes for the third year in a row, how their neighbor down at the end of the block has been out of work for six months and helping them find a job, how their grandkids in college are going to be able to stay in state and find a job in the area they actually got a degree in. Those are the things we're talking about and those are the things that are relevant, and I think there's a big difference out there.
That's where the contrast is. It's not just the shutdown. When I was asked, not who had to be, but who was my ideal candidate, it's a current or former Republican governor because those are the people getting things done. We're proving, as chief executives, we can get things done even in states, like America, which are pretty evenly split politically.
CP: Some conservatives have argued that if you disagreed with the government shutdown strategy to defund "Obamacare," then you're not a true conservative, or you're a cowardly conservative, RINO, etc. That would include people like Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and you. What's your reaction to that argument?
Walker: I think there's some value in terms of the focus on Obamacare. I think we would've got there either way even without a shutdown. I'm glad that it's passed and the focus is on the real problem that I think is universally agreed with amongst Republicans and increasingly by Americans as a whole, and that is Obamacare doesn't work.
I said back in August I think the federal government is too big, too expensive, too intrusive in our lives. But, I think, for what is left that is necessary, that we should show it work.
My sense as a governor is, and I talk at length in the book about what we did, I'm in no way reluctant to take on a battle. If I was in any way somebody who would back away from a battle I would've done it many times. People reading my book will realize that, all the stories about the protesters and the story about the recall, they're gonna learn there's a whole lot more to it in terms of the political attacks, the personal attacks, the death threats, the impact it had on my family and the families of lawmakers in our state. From my standpoint, I don't think there's any way that people can question our ability to stand up and take a tough stance to fight for the right reasons.
We didn't just fight to have a fight. We were willing to make that fight and follow it all the way through because we know, in the end, those reforms would work and the people of our state would see the benefit of that.
To me, that's different than just having a fight for the sake of having a fight if you don't have an ultimate end game. That's what I've been trying to encourage folks. We need to have an end game.
We should figure out a way to draw attention to the failures of Obamacare. Find a way to work within the current confines to postpone that some way or another, which I think is something most Americans would broadly agree with. And then make a case in 2014, get the Senate back, and then make the case two years later that you could fully replace it with something that's much more market-driven and responsive to the people.
CP: Last week the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill that would end early voting on the weekends. Is that something you support?
Walker: That, and a bunch of other bills they've proposed, I haven't really had a chance to look at. This legislative session my focal points are on two big things. I passed a $100 million property tax cut a couple of weeks ago. That's a big deal for us to get through in a special session. I have a whole series of worker training bills I've honed in and tried to get finished. And I just called a special session to alter the transition we're doing on the Medicaid population because of the absolute meltdown on Obamacare. These others, I'll take a look at it. We'll deal with in the time given to review them, but it's not at the top of our list of priorities.
CP: There's a part of the book where you describe some of your own actions as "stupid" and "dumb," and you also advise Republicans to own up to their mistakes. Why is that important?
Walker: I think it's important because people need to see us as real people. When people talk about "perfect candidates," there hasn't been a person who could be a perfect candidate for anything for about 2,000 years. The idea that people, particularly in politics, act as though nothing could ever be done wrong, to me, we made some mistakes throughout this process, we owned up to them, talked about what we did, why we did it. In the end, I think people appreciated it.
They appreciate the fact that, when you believe in something and you're passionate about it, and you're on the right side of things that you act on that. And if you occasionally have something that's wrong or you find an error, that you own up to that as well. I think that's important.
CP: You wrote, "don't compromise your principles, but do be willing to compromise." Why is compromise important in public office?
Walker: People go one way or another. Either they think you can't compromise on anything, and so I get some who over read that and think, because they don't want to compromise on their principles they don't want to compromise. The other, there are people who think that compromise means everything, including your principles. My belief is, don't compromise your principles, your core tenants, but the things you do to get there, there should be some flexibility. I think most voters, most Americans, believe that to be reasonable. And I think that's reasonable.
I may have a pathway I want to get to and I might find there's another way to get there. A good example in the book, I talked about completely eliminating collective bargaining [for public sector unions], the legislature at the time was a little bit reluctant. They probably didn't want to take it up at all. They pushed back a little bit. I still stayed true to the fact, to get the budget balanced, to do so in a way that was responsive to the needs of, not only the state, but people at the local level, we needed to make that broad change. But we could do a little bit so there was a little bit left on the end, that's probably a better pathway to getting there. That came about with some compromise with the legislature, but we didn't compromise the underlying principle of what we were doing or why we were doing it.
CP: You also advise Republicans to "champion the vulnerable." For Democrats, championing the vulnerable usually means spending more on means-tested government programs. I know that's not what you're for. So, what would a Republican platform that champions the vulnerable look like?
Walker: I think that's an interesting contrast and it's one, unfortunately, we missed out on this debate as part of the presidential election because the Romney campaign kept the focus largely just on what was wrong with Obama and his team and not on what was offered was better.
To me, the right contrast is, the president and his allies have, by and large, measured success in government by how many people are dependent on government, by how many people are dependent on programs like Medicaid and food stamps and unemployment compensation. Those are all things that are heavily driven by more government spending.
My belief in measuring success is you measure success by just the opposite, by how many people are no longer dependent on the government. Not because we've pushed them out to the street, but because we understand true freedom or prosperity doesn't come from the mighty hand of the government, it comes from empowering people to control their own lives, their own prosperity through the dignity that comes from work. I think we need to make the case.
I'll give you a good example we talk about in the book. One of my entitlement reforms is probably as significant as what I did with collective bargaining, it just didn't have 100,000 protestors. Unlike most states in America, in Wisconsin if you want to get food stamps, if you are an adult without kids who is able bodied, you have to either be employed or in one our employment training programs. We put our money where our mouth is. We put $17 million, I believe it was, to put more employment training programs for about 75,000 people in this category.
We do that and the initial reaction on the left was, "the governor hates poor people, he's trying to make it harder for government assistance." I said, "no, I'm not making it harder to get government assistance, I'm making it easier to find a job."
To me, that's a very compelling message and we want to go out and tell that. We're about helping people get out of poverty. The mistake made, I talk about this in the book, is that Romney said we don't need to worry about the poor, they have safety-net programs. No, that's exactly the wrong answer. We need to worry about the poor, not because they need more safety-nets, but because we want to empower people living in poverty to get out of it.
We should have a message that says, "you want to live the American dream, we want to help you live it. You don't want to be permanently dependent on the American government. We want to transition you from government dependence to true independence." That is not just a conservative or Republican ideal, that's an American ideal and we should be the ones embracing it.
CP: What is your religious background?
Walker: My father was a Baptist minister. I go to an evangelical, nondenominational church right now called Meadowbrook.
CP: When you think about your faith in relation to politics, how does your faith inform your politics, or do you keep those two compartmentalized?
Walker: It plays a key role in my life in general, not just in politics. There's not a play card, if you will, that tells me how to vote or how to act on certain issues. So, it's not like issue by issue it drives me. But, the larger context, not only the policy decisions I make, but how I make them, how I interact with people, how I treat people. All of those things are, without a doubt, driven by my faith.
Between that and the influence particularly of my parents, it's one of those things that leave me balanced, that lead me to be principled and stick to my guns and do what I thought was right. But, by the same token, make sure that I continue to be decent no matter what the reaction, even in the face of death threats and verbal assaults, targeting political ads and all those sorts of things. We never got to the point where we responded in kind.
In fact, a great example of this, I remember two years ago, I was out in front of my home (not the governor's mansion but my real home), I was raking leaves on a Sunday afternoon after church. One of my sons and one of his friends was with us. I hear this honk and a guy drives by, he's got his hand out the window and he's flipping me off. This young man that's with us says, "Mr. Walker, how do you put up with that?" I said, "Well, it's America, people can do and say what they want, but, it's kinda rude. You stay positive and, in the end, good things will happen."
I go back to raking the leaves. A couple of minutes go by. I hear a honk again. I'm thinking, "Lord, maybe I should've done this at night." So, I look and now there's not one, but two cars going by. Both of them, the windows are going down, arms are coming out. I say, here it comes again. And both guys stick their hands out and put their thumbs up. This young man says, "Mr. Walker, did you know that was going to happen?" I said, "no." But, it really was a great reminder to me that if you stay positive, just as I told him, good things will eventually happen to you. Maybe not in the way you expect them.
It's not a religious-based book, per se, but there are a number of examples I sprinkle throughout the book of moments where, maybe I was under pressure or a little bit down and there would be moments like that, or a guy in a factory would stop and say he and his family are praying for me.
One day when I was on the set of a morning TV show in Green Bay, the floor manager leaned down as she put the mic on and said, "Hey, I just want you to know that me and my kids pray for you each night as we go to bed."
Things like that, all throughout the times of heightened stress from the protests and the recall that were kinda telling to me and tell a message, not just to those of us in politics, but to life in general, that if you let your faith guide you and you're decent about it, God will continue to send you good messages.