Gov. Scott Walker may have picked the perfect time to get out of Wisconsin for a few days.
The prospective Republican candidate for president is traveling in the United Kingdom this week on what’s officially billed as a trade mission. It’s a trip that also turns the Wisconsin governor’s focus toward foreign policy and away from a kerfuffle at home with the University of Wisconsin.
Few things in the state are as revered as the “UW,” a fact Walker collided with last week when he proposed cutting $300 million from the university system’s budget and removing the century-old philosophical underpinning of the school’s mission statement.
The reaction, including from his normally loyal Republican allies, took some shine off the largely positive reviews Walker received nationally after his speech last month at a conservative conference in Iowa.
“It’s one of the most spiteful, mean-spirited and counter-productive things I could imagine, going after the university in this situation,” said former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican and a UW graduate who retired this year after 32 years in the Legislature.
The reaction from others was more muted. “I worry that the magnitude of the cut might be too much to absorb this quickly,” said Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Yet the criticism and concern highlighted the balance Walker must strike as a likely candidate for president still on the job as governor.
Unlike former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, out of office for more than a decade, or the several U.S. senators considering a bid, Walker is a chief executive who can’t avoid responsibilities with the potential for political risk, such as writing a budget or negotiating with state lawmakers whose agendas doesn’t always match his own.
Walker has already said he’s willing to scale back the cut. The backlash over changes to the mission statement — a beloved ideal known as the “Wisconsin Idea” — was so strong and swift that he backtracked within hours, calling the proposal a mistake he hadn’t known about.
“The bigger issue is going to be who he is and is he doing a good job managing the state,” said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist in Wisconsin who has compared UW cuts to his moves in 2011 to help solve a budget shortfall. Walker proposed making teachers and other public workers pay more for pension and retirement benefits, while also effectively ending their collective bargaining rights. The initiative sparked an effort to remove him from office, which ended in 2012 with Walker’s victory in a recall election.
“We weren’t afraid to go big and go bold,” Walker told conservatives at the Iowa event in January that drew other potential presidential candidates. “Maybe that’s why I won the race for governor three times in the last four years. … If you get the job done, the voters will actually stand up with you.”
Andrew Hartman, author and history professor at Illinois State U, says that conservative attacks on higher education have a long history in the GOP going all the way back to Ronald Reagan in the 1960s. “That can only help him in the Republican primaries,” Hartman said of Walker’s targeting UW. “It certainly can’t hurt him.”