Scott Walker's Presidential Strategy – Run against Public Institutions

Donald F. Kettl, University of Maryland

Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, touts legal blows landed against his state’s unions and universities, hoping that mobilizing resentment against “privileged” teachers and professors can propel him to the White House – where, SSNer Don Kettl explains, he would intensify attacks on public agencies and employees.


Kettl’s new SSN brief takes off from his widely cited Washington Monthly article on “Scott Walker’s Real Legacy.” Fiscal necessities were not the real reason for Walker’s anti-union measures, Kettl explains. Longstanding partisan battles pitted Wisconsin Republicans against teachers’ unions, encouraging Walker to go for knock-out blows when Republicans won full control of state government in 2010. More than half of Wisconsin’s state and local employees were unionized in 2011, but the proportion has plunged 31% in just four years.

Surviving a hotly contested recall election in 2012 and winning re-election in 2014 has emboldened Walker to sign legislation undermining private-sector unions, propose large budget reductions for state universities, and sponsor elimination of tenure rights for professors. The University of Wisconsin at Madison may suffer irreparable competitive harm in the process, but Walker’s “tough guy” approach could prove popular with GOP primary voters and enable him to win his party’s nomination for president in 2016.

Donald Kettl currently teaches at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, where he pursues research on public administration and strategies for making public agencies more effective. In addition to publishing many books and articles, Kettl has consulted with many state and federal officials, testified before Congress, and served on commissions and advisory boards concerned with reforming and improving U.S. governmental and political processes. He communicates regularly with the public through OpEds and appearances on television and radio programs.


Other SSN scholars offer insights into Scott Walker’s Wisconsin and the political tactics he has embraced. Conflicts in Wisconsin often pit rural and suburban areas against Madison and Milwaukee, explains Kathy Cramer in her SSN briefs exploring how Wisconsin people make sense of politics and why so many of them hold negative views about public employees. Another pertinent brief by John Ahlquist explains why political attacks on public sector unions become much easier after private-sector unions have already experienced sharp declines in membership and clout.

SSN members are also weighing in loud and clear on how Scott Walker’s latest moves can quickly undermine the excellence of the University of Wisconsin. In the New Republic, Nancy Kendall probes Walker’s threat to academic freedom; and in Newsweek she asks “What Else Will We Lose When Wisconsin Faculty Loses Tenure?” On looming competitive troubles, Sara Goldrick-Rab is cited in a Cap Times article on why “Tenure Changes Would Signal It’s Time to Leave UW- Madison.”

June 2015