Governor Scott Walker's new budget, which includes spending increases for health care and schools, seems to have taken some observers by surprise. It probably shouldn't have, since Walker has signaled rather clearly that he rejected what we called the "sour politics of austerity."
A few years ago, I wrote this piece for Wisconsin Interest Magazine about Walker's book, Unintimidated, which highlighted some of the political paradoxes in Walker's world view:
Scott Walker remains a puzzle to even some of his closest observers. He is, after all, a hard-edged conservative who talks about being a “champion to the vulnerable”; a fiscal conservative who disdains the politics of austerity; as well as a master communicator who sometimes fails to make his case.
In light of his budget, this section may be of particular interest:
Walker is a fiscal conservative but disdains the politics of austerity. After nine years as Milwaukee county executive and three years as governor, Walker’s image (at least among progressives) is that of a relentless budget cutter. In a scathing attack in 2011, historian John Gurda accused him of “dismantling government one line item at a time, regardless of the consequences.”
But in his book, Walker is sharply critical of what he calls the “sour politics of austerity.”“Too often, conservatives present themselves as the bearers of sour medicine, when we should be offering a positive, optimistic agenda instead.”
His budget could have laid off tens of thousands of middle class workers, slashed Medicaid, and cut billions from schools and local governments, he writes. “But,” Walker asks, “where is the optimism in that?”
Instead, Walker champions what he calls a “hopeful, optimistic alternative to austerity.” The key, he writes, is rejecting the “false choice” of spending cuts versus tax hikes and opting instead for changing the fundamental rules of the game.
“We found a way to make government not just smaller, but also more responsive, more efficient and more effective. And because we did, we were able to cut government spending while still improving education and public services.”