During the 1988 U.S. vice-presidential debate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen famously replied to Sen. Dan Quayle, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” To paraphrase Sen. Bentsen, “Gov. Scott Walker, you’re no Robert La Follette, Sr.”
In a telephone interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph Rago last month, Walker compared himself to Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, stating he belonged to “that proud tradition of people who are aggressive and not afraid to take on big challenges. I actually think I’m a progressive too, I think I fit in that tradition.”
Certainly, there are “some” similarities between Walker and Robert La Follette, who the University of Wisconsin’s school of public affairs is named for. First, Walker is a member of the Republican Party, just like La Follette was. Second, both were political crusaders during their respective time periods. Even so, these similarities between Walker and La Follette are at best superficial and, at worst, illusory.
The contemporary Republican Party is different in degree and kind from the Republican Party that existed when La Follette was a public servant during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The GOP of the late 1800s and early 1990s had a robust progressive wing, as exemplified by La Follette and President Theodore Roosevelt. In contrast, the modern Republican Party has no progressive wing and it’s arguable that, as a practical matter, it has little room, if any, for a moderate wing. As political scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein noted in a Washington Post op-ed two years ago, “The [modern] GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Although Walker and La Follette were political crusaders during their respective time periods, that’s where the similarity ends. Walker is a political crusader for regressive policies; La Follette was a political crusader for progressive policies. On the ideological spectrum, Walker and La Follette couldn’t be further from one another.
During La Follette’s tenure as governor of Wisconsin, he oversaw the enactment of the state’s first inheritance tax law, rallied against the economic and political power of corporations, as well as advocating for many progressive legislative measures, including “a direct primary system, tax reform legislation [and] railroad rate control.” In contrast, Walker signed Act 10 into law, which gutted most of the rights of public employees to collectively bargain. In addition, he has signed various tax cuts into law that have largely benefited the wealthiest in the state – cuts which have now led to an excepted shortfall of almost $1.8 billion for the 2015-17 state budget.
While La Follette advocated for the economic and political interests of citizens with little or average wealth, Walker has advocated for the economic and political interests of wealthy individuals and corporate citizens, with little regard for the economic plight of those who are economically disadvantaged. As Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in October, “ … I don’t think [the Wisconsin minimum wage] serves a purpose because we’re debating then about what the lowest levels are at.”
Therefore, if he is talking about the American tradition of political progressivism, Walker clearly does not fit that tradition. Political progressives in America have traditionally been associated with left-wing politics and have largely supported efforts to help the lower and middle class through the taxation of large corporations and through other economic distributive policies.
But if one defines progressive as being politically pragmatic, then he may be progressive to a certain extent. Even so, it would be more accurate to describe Walker as a political opportunist — not a political pragmatist. Political opportunists change their political views or rhetoric because the political climate has changed and do so for the sole reason of getting elected. In contrast, political pragmatists change their political views or rhetoric either because new facts become known to them or because they must compromise with the political opposition to avoid political gridlock.
Walker’s equivocal stance on same-sex marriage during the last election is evidence of Walker being a political opportunist. He saw that the political wind had changed direction on same-sex marriage and made his stance more equivocal so that he has a more viable shot as a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016.
While Walker may think he is a progressive in the tradition of Wisconsin public servants such as Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, he’s neither politically progressive nor politically pragmatic. He’s a political opportunist willing to change political views at a moment’s whim, with both eyes on a 2016 GOP presidential bid.
Aaron Loudenslager ([email protected]) is a second-year law student.