Lessons for Reformers from Governor Scott Walker
Certainly there are scores of Beltway conservative reformers (and movement conservatives disinterested in education policy) who are dismayed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s decision yesterday to halt his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. After all, the onetime state legislator and former Milwaukee County Executive-turned-governor has been highly-touted by them for his success in abolishing collective bargaining for NEA and AFT affiliates (along with other public-sector unions) in the Dairy State, as well as for surviving efforts by those outfits and progressive groups to oust him from office. So to see him leave the presidential campaign trail — and leave the stage to the likes of oft-unsuccessful real estate developer-turned-politician Donald Trump and famed surgeon Benjamin Carson (even with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Budget Committee Chairman-turned-Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the field) — is distressing to them.
Yet there are at least two lessons that reformers of all stripes can learn from the collapse of Walker’s campaign. Not one of them is comforting.
Being president is different than being a governor — and voters know it: Back in 2007, a year before the presidential campaign that would come, then-American Spectator Assistant Managing Editor Jeremy Lott and I speculated that competence in managing government would be the top issue on the minds of voters. After all, the complaints about outgoing President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and the economic malaise that was just beginning to manifest were fresh on the minds of pundits and other commentators. Based on that thinking, your editor thought that either former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would ultimately face off against a Democrat, possibly former Indiana governor-turned-U.S. Senator Evan Bayh or Iowa’s Tom Vilsack, with substantial experience as a governor.
But both Lott and I were wrong. As it turned out, the presidential nominees for both parties,were two senators, Barack Obama and John McCain, with no experience running states or municipalities, while the experiences of Giuliani, Romney, Bayh, and Vilsack amounted to nothing. One of the lessons your editor learned: What voters turned out to be concerned about had nothing to do with competence in running government, as prognosticators see it. What they wanted was a president who understood that his key role has less to do with running a federal bureaucracy that is far larger than any state or municipal operations. This means setting a political agenda for the nation, selecting political appointees who also understand that their job is to set agendas within their own respective bureaucracies, serving as the ambassador for the world’s most-important superpower on the foreign policy front, being a constant charismatic-yet-even tempered campaigner for the agenda he is setting, interfacing with state governments over which the federal government has little real direction outside of subsidies, and exuding confidence and hope even during times when circumstances seem hopeless.
The best way to measure how well any presidential candidate can be president is not by looking at the gubernatorial record. This is because the role of governors — which can differ greatly from state to state — fundamentally different in substance (if not in form or style) from being Commander-in-Chief. It is hard to know how well the governor of a state in which the role is constitutionally weak like Texas or Indiana will compare to counterparts from New York or Florida, where the governors have strong control over every aspect of the executive branch. In general, there’s little about being governor that compares to being president. This is something voters, who have picked chosen governors to become president with mixed success for most of the past 40 years, have come to learn the hard way. The only way you can know how well a presidential candidate may govern is by actually watching them run for the top job. This is because running a billion-dollar campaign for the nation’s highest office is the closest approximate to actually being president.
On that test, Walker failed miserably. From Walker’s poor performance in two Republican presidential debates, to his failure to pick campaign managers and other staffers who could properly set agendas, to his own inability to cast a profile that measured up to the men who had (and currently) occupy the Oval Office, Walker showed that he wasn’t presidential material. This was especially problematic for the governor because, as New York Timescolumnist Ross Douthat points out, his greatest success — abolishing collective bargaining rules that wreak havoc on state governments, municipalities, and traditional school districts — is rather meaningless at the federal level, where public-sector union influence is limited largely to lobbying Congress and agencies. Unable to prove the relevance of his work as a state chief executive to the presidency, and incapable of demonstrating his fitness for the job through an effective national campaign, Walker had little choice but to stop running.
For reformers, Walker’s failures on both fronts may serve as harbinger of what will happen over the next few months. If Jeb Bush doesn’t improve his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, his success in overhauling public education in the Sunshine State won’t matter at all. Same is true for the remaining governors in the field, as well as for Hillary Clinton, whose second run for the presidency is faring just slightly better than the last one. This could mean that federal education policy could be a secondary (though important) issue on Election Day next year. Which, in turn, may lead to an ally of traditionalists setting the direction of federal education policy to the detriment of systemic reform.
Flip-Flopping on Common Core has done little to help Walker or his counterparts gain traction:
One of Walker’s key talking points during his campaign was the fact that he had pushed to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards after having supported their implementation five years ago. From ordering the state education department to stop rolling out the standards two years ago, to promising to stop the implementation during his successful re-election bid for governor last year, to trying to cut funding for the use of Common Core-aligned tests provided by the Smarter Balanced coalition, Walker worked overtime to prove that he shared cause with movement conservatives unconcerned with education who wrongly view the standards as a federal takeover of public education.
But as it turns out, Walker’s backtracking on Common Core implementation won him no supporters. Movement conservatives (including a branch of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum) and hard-core progressive traditionalists (the latter of which never would have voted for Walker or any Republican) issued a letter last July demanding the governor to take a clear stand against Common Core implementation and standardized testing in general. As Walker’s now-former colleague on the presidential campaign trail, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal found out the hard way, movement conservatives opposed to the standards, who know that the Wisconsin governor has flip-flopped on the issue, see him as just another cheap-suit politician. For them, Walker is hardly presidential material. As for moderate Republicans concerned about education policy who are divided on the standards? His performance on the campaign trail, along with the flip-flopping on Common Core, simply make him a less-compelling candidate.
That’s when Republicans, along with Democrats, are giving any thought at all to education policy. For most Republicans, reversing the Obama Administration’s legacy (along with that of George W. Bush) on almost every front, and tackling immigration policy, are far more-pressing issues than education. As a result, Common Core implementation hasn’t been a subject of conversation outside of the pages of education policy journals and political punditry. For all the energy Walker and his peers in the Republican presidential field exercised on reversing themselves on rolling out the standards, they would have been better off standing by their support for the efforts while focusing more time on building strong campaign operations.
For reformers, Walker’s failure to capitalize on what Common Core foes claim to be widespread opposition to the standards is another reminder that transforming American public education is not an exercise in winning popularity contests. As civil rights activists and other social reformers learned long ago, rarely has any change that benefits children and people ever been popular. Just as importantly, the fact that federal education policy discussions hasn’t been a defining issue during this election should be humbling.
About the Author: RiShawn Biddle is Editor and Publisher of Dropout Nation — the leading commentary Web site on education reform — a columnist for Rare and The American Spectator, award-winning editorialist, speechwriter, communications consultant and education policy advisor. More importantly, he is a tireless advocate for improving the quality of K-12 education for every child. The co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, Biddle combines journalism, research and advocacy to bring insight on the nation’s education crisis and rally families and others to reform American public education. This article originally appeared in Dropout Nation and is republished here with permission from the author.