The Heartland Institute was honored to host Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for a dinner in Chicago last week. Watch the speech in the video player above.
There’s been a lot of talk since the 2012 election about a major communications problem on the right. How should the right talk about the virtues of a smaller government in a political and social environment that sees an activist government as “good?” What is the moral case for restoring the limited Constitutional order that the Founders left us?
Walker put on a clinic on how that conversation should start — and continue. He noted that the virtues of smaller government is embodied in the American Dream. Nobody grows up dreaming of one day depending on the government, he said. Dignity comes from work, adding that on July 4th:
In America, we celebrate our independence from the government, not our dependence on it.”
We’re a policy shop, and Walker delivered a political speech — but it was a good one, with a lot of substance on policy. Walker talked about how he has tried to focus on policies that will allow the Wisconsin economy to thrive, not the government and its clients. And he now has a record that turned around a struggling Wisconsin around to back up his belief in the virtues of smaller government.
In his speech, Walker contrasted Wisconsin with Illinois under Gov. Pat Quinn’s leadership — a sad comparison to the mostly Chicago audience. Both states faced huge deficits when the governors took office four years ago. But while Gov. Quinn raised taxes, Walker decided the best approach was to build the economy by taking the tax burden off of the people. He said he focused on long-term budget reforms involving cutting taxes and decreasing spending — but he was careful to avoid layoffs and Medicare cuts that so many still rely on. There were a lot of hard decisions, Walker said, but he didn’t shy away from making them.
We need to think more about the next generation than we do about the next election. Isn’t that what you elect us to do?”
For Wisconsin, planning ahead has paid off, Walker said. In 2011, the state labored under a $3.6 billion deficit. After implementing pro-growth policies, Wisconsin’s budget now has a half-billion-dollar surplus — and Walker said he has more tax cuts in the works.
The budget … includes nearly a billion dollars of additional tax relief. Everything from income tax relief, to business tax relief, to overall tax reform to make the case to the people of our state, to the employers of our state … we actually believe you can spend your money better than the government can.”
In just four years, Walker said his state has seen dramatic improvements across the board. Wisconsin’s 9.2 percent unemployment rate improved by over two points. It’s state ranking in Chief Executive’s Magazine shot up all the way from 43, one of the nation’s worst, to 17. Walker noted that only 4 percent of employers thought the state was heading in the right direction when he took office, but now that approval rating is riding at a 94 percent. “I’m working on that other 6 percent,” Walker joked.
The governor identified three major keys to his success, and the first is his optimism about our future. He pointed out that so many politicians try to win an election based only on pointing out the other side’s flaws. Instead, Walker said he tries to remember the lessons of Ronald Reagan to stay (and communicate) optimism about pro-growth policies and the future. People want to be inspired by something, he said, and great leadership lays out an optimism people can internalize and believe for themselves.
Walker said his second key is staying relevant to the voters. That’s why when talking to constituents, he stays away from dry topics like sequesters and fiscal cliffs, focuses instead on issues that are more relevant to people’s lives. Take education, for example. Walker said he is not afraid to talk frankly about school choice, and continually frames it as a way to empower parents to get a better education for their children. While teachers’ unions yell about that issue, he trusts that ordinary people will understand the truth — and benefit — of his position.
The final key Walker gave for his success in Wisconsin was his determination to stick to — and act upon — his convictions to reduce the size and power of the government and its clients. Walker described how despite facing harassment and death threats, he and other legislators pressed on to empower the people with the freedom to choose whether or not to join a union. His proposal was nothing more controversial than that — yet remember how leftist activists turned Madison into a litter-strewn, drum-banging, intimidating “Ground Zero” against conservative principles. Walker said his decision to stick to that principle was the key to turning Wisconsin’s economy around because it signaled to businesses (and workers) that the Badger State was friendly to capitalists again.
Walker closed with the powerful point that conservatives need to stop letting the left accuse them of taking things away from people when they institute policies that make people less dependent on government. This is the moral argument for smaller government that has the most resonance, he said:
I’m not making it harder to get a government assistance. I’m making it easier to get a job. Isn’t that what it should be about?”
Walker challenged President Obama to stop counting success by how many people are dependent on government programs, and instead measure success by how many people can succeed independent of government assistance. Those of us on the right, Walker said, must make the moral case for smaller government, and help more people get off public assistance — so they can experience the dignity of work and true independence.
My summary of Walker’s remarks pales in comparison to hearing it from Walker himself. Watch — and share — the video above.