The implosion of Scott Walker’s presidential campaign provides a powerful reminder that — far from being the “unintimidated” champion of a new politics — Walker is a transitory figure on the national scene. And he will be a transitory figure on the Wisconsin scene as well.
Like grass-roots Republicans across the country, who have seen through Walker, Wisconsinites are turning against the governor. Wisconsin voters don’t think he should be running for president, and they don’t support him for the job — according to the Marquette University Law School poll, 75 percent of potential Republican primary voters are not supporting the governor’s run. Walker’s in-state approval rating — the measure of whether voters think he is doing a good job — has fallen to 39 percent in the poll.
History will not be kind to Walker, in part because of his ineptitude. Ill-prepared and disengaged, he may actually have thought that attacking labor unions and undermining public education and public services would somehow balance budgets or inspire an economic boom. But when his strategies were proven wrong, and destructive, he stuck with his failed “ideas” in order to advance what would be a failed White House bid.
In even larger part, history will not be kind to Walker because of his stated determination to “divide and conquer” Wisconsin in order to advance the political agenda of the campaign donors he thought would fund that presidential run.
Walker’s tenure has been a period of discord, dysfunction and dramatic breaks with reality — assaults on open records laws, an attempt to scrap Wisconsin Idea language, and the crisis that is the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. This governor’s legacy will eventually be understood as the mess that better governors had to clean up.
As such, Walker is the quintessential opposite of Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette.
While Walker made a mess by attempting to barter off Wisconsin’s future to the highest bidders, La Follette cleaned up a mess by chasing the money changers from the temples of power and ensuring that the people of Wisconsin — not out-of-state special interests — would rule. La Follette governed from a place of principle, as opposed to partisanship, and he succeeded in winning the confidence of the state and much of the nation.
When La Follette sought the presidency in 1924, as an independent progressive who attacked economic and political elites, who decried monopoly and corruption, who campaigned for economic and social justice and peace, he swept Wisconsin with 54 percent of the vote — defeating Republican President Calvin Coolidge by almost 20 points and reducing the Democratic vote to less than 10 percent of the total. La Follette finished second in a dozen states across the country and inspired the movements that would forge a New Deal.
Next Saturday, at Madison’s Breese Stevens Field, thousands of Wisconsinites will gather for Fighting Bob Fest. Few governors create legacies that stand the test of time, and that are celebrated across centuries. But La Follette did. Long after Walker is gone and forgotten, Bob La Follette will still be remembered as Wisconsin’s greatest governor.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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