Joe Boyles: Guest Columnist
In all of my travels, I have never visited the state of Wisconsin. Someday, I hope to rectify that omission. I’ve always admired the fight song of the university, “On Wisconsin.” I would label that music as iconic. I do know that the Badger state played a crucial role in the November election.
You might recall that a half dozen mid-western states including Wisconsin formed the famous “blue wall” of support that propelled Democrats to victory. In fact, before November 8, the last time a Republican carried Wisconsin was in 1984. But Donald Trump won Wisconsin’s ten electoral votes by carrying the popular vote by about 23 thousand. Once opened, the blue wall cracked with traditional blue collar states like Iowa, Michigan, and Pennsylvania turning from blue to red. It was the Mid-West which Barack Obama carried twice comfortably that propelled Trump and the Republicans to victory.
What was it in Wisconsin that made the difference in 2016? The answer to that question is most likely complex, but it seems to me that three political figures made a profound difference. First and foremost was Governor Scott Walker. When he took office in 2010, Wisconsin was in dire financial shape with a $3 billion deficit looming large. Walker immediately proposed changes in the law to rein-in collective bargaining for public sector unions in order to balance the budget.
It was a huge political fight, but Walker prevailed. His proposals not only balanced the budget but created a surplus without raising taxes. In the process, he earned plenty of political enemies who came after him hammer and tong. He survived two more elections including a recall. Many thought he was a favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination, but his candidacy never took off and was one of the first of a field of 17 to withdraw from the race. So Walker’s influence was confined primarily to Wisconsin, but the impact he had cannot be minimized.
The second Wisconsinite to play a critical role was/is Congressman Paul Ryan, now Speaker of the House of Representatives. Ryan is a policy wonk who probably knows more about the federal budget than any national figure. A year ago, Speaker Ryan seemed to be ‘skating on thin ice,’ but now, he has the full support of the new president and his caucus. He is poised to play a critical role this year as the new Administration tackles the deficit and tax reform. Many other important pieces of legislation will be addressed by the Congress in the coming months and will test his leadership.
The third Badger State alumnus to gain a footing on the national stage is Reince Priebus. For several years, he held the important post of chairman of the RNC – Republican National Committee. He was able to hold the coalition together in the bruising Republican Primary without taking sides. Given the size of the field, that was a difficult task. Contrast that to all the problems encountered by his counterparts with the DNC. The new president has sufficient confidence in Priebus to appoint him to White House Chief of Staff, literally the gate-keeper to the Oval Office.
It seems to me that all three of these gents played an important role in switching Wisconsin from blue to red and their influence continues. Maybe only the state of Georgia is so important in the new Administration where two cabinet nominees, former Governor Sonny Perdue (Agriculture) and Dr. Tom Price (Health and Human Services), hold important policy jobs. Dr. Price, a former Congressman from the Atlanta area, will play a key role in the overhaul of healthcare insurance. At this point, I think it is refreshing to have a medical professional as head of the department which governs healthcare policy.
So what else do I think of about Wisconsin besides the cheese (I love the cheese)? It is the home of the McArthurs (as in Douglas) and the Vandenbergs (as in Hoyt) and the ace-of-aces Dick Bong. In January 1945, the Air Force pulled Major Richard Bong, a P-38 pilot with 40 kills in the Southwest Pacific, from combat for his protection only to have him die later that year testing an early generation jet in Southern California. “Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men.” On Wisconsin.