Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had to deal with plenty of liberal activists during his tenure. In an interview recorded at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Walker shares what he learned—and how to deal with biased media. Read the transcript, posted below, or listen to the interview on the podcast:
We also cover these stories:
- The House Judiciary Committee votes to subpoena the Mueller report.
- The NATO secretary-general addresses Congress.
- New Mexico has officially ditched Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day.
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Kate Trinko: Joining us today from CPAC is [former] Gov. Scott Walker, Republican of Wisconsin. So governor, you were in charge of a fairly blue state for eight years.
Scott Walker: Yeah, very much so.
Trinko: You had .. an epic sort of governorship. What were some of your biggest lessons from those eight years?
Walker: I think coming into a blue state, because in 2010 when I first ran, everything was blue. Both U.S. senators, majority of House seats, both of our legislative bodies, governor, lieutenant governor, all Democrat. We changed it.
… We focused on a couple key issues. We talked about how everything tied into the economic and fiscal crisis we faced in the state, and really in the nation. And everything we did came back to that. So we repeated it over and over again.
Secondly, we went big and we went bold and we did it early. We knew in a blue state we might not have the chance to do all these things if we waited more than in that first term. So we did most of these things right in the first 45 to 60 days. And then we had the time to prove that our reforms work.
… The other big takeaway was every time we had a win, instead of hoarding political capital, like a lot of politicians do, we kept reinvesting it. So we had our battle with the unions and collective bargaining, once we won that battle, we invested in tax reform, welfare reform, health care reform, and we kept reforming and reinvesting.
Trinko: Why do you think that you had the courage to go bold right away? Because I’d say a lot of conservatives get frustrated because their politicians say, “Someday, someday, someday.” And meanwhile liberals passed Obamacare right away when Obama was president. So how were you able to get other people on board with this?
Walker: I think the kicker is not only to find good candidates, but to make sure that they’re people who have really thought about and believe in what they’re doing.
Literally about 10 years ago at this time, I went to Indiana. Mitch Daniels was then the governor. I thought he was doing a good job in that state. Ironically, the guy that took us around that day along with the governor was a guy by the name of Eric Holcomb, who’s now the governor of Indiana himself. And talk about how some things go—
Trinko: Full circle.
Walker: Full circle, exactly. But I went down there to meet with them because I thought before I run, I want to make sure I can actually get things done.
And I thought, in addition to Tommy Thompson—who in my state years before me had been a great reformer on education reform, with vouchers and on welfare reform—I wanted to look at a more modern or a more recent example. And I went to Mitch. That’s really important, whether it’s running for a legislative seat, an executive position, whatever people are running for, it’s making sure it’s not only about how to win, but how to govern.
Trinko: Let’s go back to that collective bargaining side. I still remember seeing the pictures and it just seemed like a mad house. The state Capitol was flooded with protests, right?
Walker: It was. The Occupy movement did not start on Wall Street, it happened on my street. And then it went to Wall Street. After they lost, they literally did go to Wall Street. But it was one where early on there were a few thousand protesters, which would have been big anywhere.
It got to be over 100,000, almost 150,000 … … It started out with Wisconsin folks, but the left realized what we really were taking away was their power. We were taking the power out of the big government special interests and putting it firmly in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers.
They could not have that. They would have sold their members out, I believe, for anything. For paying 100% of health care and insurance premiums, 100% of their pension. If only we had allowed them to keep their dues, their automatic dues deduction. We stopped that and gave workers the freedom to choose whether they wanted to be in the union or not. And that’s what frightened them the most.
Trinko: What lessons did you learn from how to handle them? As I recall, at the time, everyone thought this was a fairly normal reform. Obviously, there were objections, but no one thought it was going to lead to a political firestorm of the magnitude that occurred. And I imagine on the ground at the time you guys were kind of making snap decisions pretty rapidly about how to address it.
Walker: It was unbelievable. In fact, I wrote a book a few years ago called “Unintimidated.” It’s, I think, worth folks reading because it’s not my autobiography. People would be surprised to learn that there’s very little about me personally in there. It’s really about what we did.
The beginning of the book isn’t chronological. It starts with the part where we had a report that the Capitol again was taken over completely by the mobs who came in and just wouldn’t leave out there. And we learned a lot along the way. In fact, … later when Michigan put in place Freedom to Work, we actually helped them because we learned things along the way.
Probably the most important thing I learned throughout the process, which then I adapted elsewhere, was I was so eager to fix things—because we had a real problem and I had to fix it—that I just fixed it. I didn’t talk about it.
Usually in politics, particularly in Washington, they talk about it, but they never fix it. What I learned in the end is you have to do both. You can’t just fix things and expect that people just automatically know. So I constantly, instead of talking about the what, remind myself and my team over the years, you have to explain why you’re doing something and then the what will make sense.
Trinko: What would your advice be to other conservatives right now as they deal with leftists mobs?
Walker: I think a couple of key things. One, spend a lot of time talking with your colleagues. So I would go to both legislative caucuses, the Republicans in the Assembly, the Republicans in the Senate, spent a lot of time talking with them. And what we found is the more angry, the more intense, the worse off the protesters were, the more we got threats and death threats and other things. It actually unified us as long as we were communicating.
Don’t let outside influences be the only thing they’re hearing. Keep communicating with your supporters. We did the same thing. I would do daily press conferences to talk directly to the public and to our supporters. I think that’s just critically important along the way and know that in the end it may be difficult, but you know what’s the old adage? It’s always darkest right before the dawn. There’s a lot of truth to that.
… The biggest mistake conservatives can make is to push for some bold reform and then pull back at the last second because they’re intimidated by the media or the left. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is which, or unions or anybody else. That’s the worst case scenario for us because then nobody ever gets to see the benefits.
At the same time, they get worked up on all the attacks and the threats. Once people saw things worked, our schools were the same or better, our property taxes went down. That’s why we won the recall with a greater vote than we did the first time.
Trinko: Speaking of doing these daily press conferences, I was kind of surprised to hear you say that. A lot of conservatives say, “Should we engage with the media? How do we do it?” Why did you decide to do it daily and how would you advise people to deal with the media?
Walker: It varies by circumstance. When we did this, I was fortunate because after the first couple of days it got so much attention because of the protest that the local media and then eventually even some of the cable networks started covering my 5 o’clock press conference live. I would do it at the same time and I would do it right at the start of the news.
The beauty of that was, which you’ll appreciate, it was unfiltered. And I didn’t go on for too long. I’d do it for about 10 minutes or so. Talk for a few minutes, take a couple of questions, but I wanted to talk directly to the people in my state.
It’s why I now … not only do press conferences, but I’m a big believer in social media. We do Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and all that because these are all ways to talk directly to the people and not have to deal with the filter.
Over the years, we’d do town hall meetings, we’d do telephone town hall meetings on phones. We’d do Facebook live town hall meetings. We’d do things like that. And that’s a way to talk directly to the people.
Trinko: Are there any particular political issues or political figures that you’re following right now or admire or care a lot about?
Walker: I’ve always been a big fan of Ronald Reagan. So to me, even though that’s old school, I think old is cool again. You think about these principles. Ironically, “Let’s Make America Great Again” actually came from Ronald Reagan. President Trump was wise enough to invoke that same sort of concept and principle on the way.
But for me, issue-wise, I think one of the most under-covered, under-discussed issues—with all the things going on, with all the socialism coming on the left, with the president, rightfully so, focused on border security and the threats to our nation and to freedom, all those things are important.
But I think we don’t talk nearly enough, those of us on the right, about the strength of our economic policies, about the importance of work, that the real difference of socialism is not just about Obamacare. It’s not just some of these other things.
… I think one of the biggest problems with the so-called Green New Deal isn’t just the taxes and the regulations, or, as their notes said, getting rid of farting cows and airplanes, which is crazy, it’s the idea that they want to guarantee a job for everyone even if they don’t want to work.
I think in their hearts, most Americans know that most of us as human beings want to work. We want to find joy in our labor. And I think it’s really important for us to talk about that, to talk about ways to improve the economy, which will, more than the government, raise wages and improve people’s lives and opportunities.
Trinko: Speaking of cows and [Rep. Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez’s plan, I can’t imagine that Wisconsin—which I gather has OK cheese, not as good as my home state, California, but OK. Just messing with you, governor.
Walker: Gold medal world championship.
Trinko: … We talked so much about Wisconsin and the forgotten men and women and these concerns. So how do you think these very progressive ideas are playing among people in Wisconsin?
Walker: … This goes back to your question about the mainstream media, why it’s so critically important to get the facts. On this case, actually part of the facts is just reading what they say.
You almost thought the early frequently asked questions sheet that they put out—they later adjusted it—but you almost thought it was something out of The Onion. It was so ridiculous. They said that they had the phases planned in over 10 years because they didn’t think they could get rid of the farting cows and airplanes. Those were their words.
Trinko: Oh, yeah. It’s just amazing.
Walker: … So what was her big response when, not even a conservative, but somebody, just kind of a comedian pushed back and said, “Hey, wait a minute. What about these cows?” She goes, “Well, I know it’s really about factory farms.” And really not knowing what she’s talking about, she said, “Oh, we just can’t eat hamburgers three times a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” To which I tweeted back at her, I said, “Well, I don’t know. If they’re Culver’s hamburgers from Wisconsin, that just sounds delicious to me.”
But it’s ridiculous. Who is saying we should be eating hamburgers three times a day? But that’s just how far out there she is. And I asked, the other day when I was on a campus, how many people had had cheese or consumed ice cream or custard or put some cream in their coffee? Well, everybody there had in the last day or two.
I asked how many people in the last six months had been on an airplane? Let’s think about how screwed up our economy and our lives would be if we didn’t have access to that. I particularly found amusement in the senator from Hawaii, who’s a pretty big liberal, who was asked about this new plan. And she goes, “I don’t know that it works too well for Hawaii. The high speed train to Hawaii just isn’t going to cut it.”
Trinko: Yeah. You don’t really want to kayak there. Well, thank you so much for joining us, governor.
Walker: My pleasure. Good to be with you.