That exploding sound you heard Tuesday was the heads of liberals exploding when they read David Blaska:
Last week, Gov. Scott Walker proposed expanding school choice vouchers to nine large school districts that have failing or under-performing schools. Good Madison libs, who have been running Madison’s high-priced public school system for decades into an ever-widening achievement gap for minority students, are coughing up a collective hairball. …
Q. So, why do you say Scott Walker blazing a trail as a reform governor in the historic mold of Fighting Bob La Follette (or, for that matter, Tommy Thompson)?
A. First, he hobbled the teachers unions, which has siphoned off increased education spending and held veto power over performance measures and accountability. Secondly, by proposing school choice, it doesn’t matter how much the Madison school district whores after the teachers union, or its remnants. Parents can choose alternatives in the existing or new privately operated schools in Madison that will blossom with the increased demand. Scott Walker has placed his trust not in institutions, not in the education establishment elite or in government coercion, but in leaving the people free to decide for themselves.
That is as Revolutionary as the Founding Fathers. Class dismissed.
As a graduate of La Follette High School in Madison (which makes me a political science and history expert, right?), I am skeptical of Blaska’s comparison, although I can appreciate hyperbole to attract reader attention. (However, exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.) Railroad passes for politicians haven’t been an issue in this state for a while, thanks, I guess, to Fighting Bob.
On the other hand, I oppose sainthood for politicians, whether it’s Walker, Thompson, Russ Feingold, Barack Obama, La Follette or anyone else. One of the worst aspects of today’s Democratic Party in Wisconsin is its unthinking, hypnotic worship of Obama, Feingold, Tammy Baldwin, Bill Clinton, etc., etc., ad nauseam. It disgusts me. Regular readers know that I spend more time beating on politicians, even Republicans, than praising them.
(The correct pay for politicians, regardless of level, is the same pay the New York Times advocated in 1987 as the correct minimum wage: Zero.)
The way you tell a reformer’s impact is from the long view, and Walker hasn’t been in office long enough to have a long-term impact. For that matter, Walker’s accomplishment of undoing the fiscal disaster that was the Doyle administration’s last two years is just one accomplishment. Not enough of the Doyle disaster, particularly Doyle’s tax increases, has been reversed.
What did Fighting Bob accomplish? La Follette and Progressives proposed direct election of U.S. senators, instead of having them chosen by state legislatures. (Some conservatives want to go back to the original, though I’m not sure what that would now accomplish.) La Follette enacted the first state income tax, soon followed by the first federal income tax. (The state income tax was enacted to provide — surprise! — property tax relief. It failed in that regard, as has the state sales tax. Wisconsin has the fourth highest state and local taxes in the country, something about which Walker has done far too little.)
La Follette also stoked the fires of envy of the “rich” (defined as someone with more money than you). And so we have high personal income tax rates (see Doyle, James) and high corporate income tax rates. And as a result, Wisconsin trails the nation in business starts, incorporations, major corporations and per capita personal income. We have had a bad business climate as long as business climates have been measured (at least three decades), and where does the attitude that business is an evil that must be controlled and taxed to the eyeballs come from? The people who put the annual Fighting Bob Fest on their calendars as soon as the date is set, including some elected officials, and obviously labor leaders.
Populists love the concept of “Fighting ______,” taking on the big meanies on behalf of the little guy. Today, of course, the “big meanies” might be considered public employee unions (whose heads are considerably better compensated than their members, and particularly the average Wisconsin family, whose income is short of $50,000), the education establishment (for whom the status quo is just fine; never mind what’s best for the children), and those who stand in the way of the little guy having a better financial year this year than last year. “Fighting Scott”? Well, maybe.
Here’s one place where the moniker definitely doesn’t fit, and shouldn’t fit. The most pernicious aspect of the Progressive Era was the idea that mankind could be perfected by government, institutions and society. The more electorally successful progressive was Woodrow Wilson, whose idea of human improvement was Prohibition, raids by his attorney general on suspected subversives, and jailing those who didn’t adhere to the government line. Wilson begat a different kind of “progressive,” Franklin Roosevelt, who interned Japanese–Americans during World War II, after he made the Great Depression far worse by ineffective economic policy in the spirit of doing something, anything, about the Depression, whether or not it worked.
A potential comparison of Walker may be to not La Follette the Progressive, but Theodore Roosevelt the progressive. Roosevelt famously busted the trusts. (Some of which, however, got put back together; much of the Standard Oil behemoth is now BP Amoco and ExxonMobil.) Walker is in the process of, if not busting public employee unions (teacher and police unions still exist, as do the more radical government employee unions), then putting them in a more appropriate place than they have been.
(While a UW student, I wrote a term paper, which I now wish I could find, comparing the progressive Roosevelt with the progressive La Follette. Despite being on the same sides of many issues, Roosevelt and La Follette started separate Progressive Parties, and based on my research, including their autobiographies, neither could really stand the other.)
A comparison Walker might better appreciate would be with Ronald Reagan. The political right is not the group who believes the Constitution needs to be fumigated of such odious concepts as the right to own firearms, or the right of businesses to participate in the political process because the political process affects business. Reagan’s eight years in office undid not just the disastrous four previous years, but much of the worst features of the Nixon Administration.
I’d be much happier with Walker getting his inspiration from the Founding Fathers instead of from La Follette. Voters don’t want change; voters want improvement. “Reform” sounds great as a political concept, until “reform” turns out to be worse than what it replaced. (Have the public schools as a whole really improved in the past, say, half-century?) Walker may not even get reelected next year, so it’s a little early to assign a legacy just yet.