TPM Cafe: Opinion

Criminal Or Not, Scott Walker's Scheme Should Bother You

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AP Photo / Morry Gash

Walker, prosecutors allege, illegally coordinated with donors and outside groups during the 2012 recall campaign that attempted to oust him and some of his allies in the state legislature. The year-long effort between Walker and groups like the Wisconsin Club for Growth violates the spirit, and maybe the letter, of multiple campaign finance laws.

The defenders of Walker mostly claim this is a partisan witch-hunt, an effort to use stupid technicalities against the governor. And in general, the people making this case are arguing against the principles of campaign finance law, not just the idea that Walker broke that law.

Like his policy agenda, Walker’s open flouting of the principles of campaign finance reform springs from his hard-right ideology.

Walker and his allies see efforts to limit money in politics in much the same way they see minimum-wage laws or consumer-product-safety regulations: as an illegitimate distortion of the market, a way for the losers without money to constrain those who do have money from getting whatever they want.

From cuts in public services to union-busting to voter suppression, Walker’s agenda is about redistributing power upwards - away from voters and employees, and towards the sort of people who have millions to donate to Walker and the allies he coordinated with.

As politics becomes more and more of a luxury good, this is increasingly common: both parties wind up having to chase the whims of the very wealthiest people. As Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger report, Walker’s coordination with allies is just a high-profile example of a growing dynamic in politics:

“campaign strategists and legal experts nationwide are closely watching the inquiry as a major test of what practices cross the line in the loosely governed and increasingly murky area of big-money politics.

Walker survived [the recall], as did the GOP’s state Senate majority, in part because of the influx of money from conservative organizations.

Strategists on the right have come to describe the victories there as the ‘Wisconsin model,’ citing the impact that was possible through intensive spending in a single state.”

Indeed, groups like the Club for Growth, who oppose campaign-finance laws, have an incentive to push the limits and invite legal action: they can count on a friendly Supreme Court to invalidate rules that might limit them. As law professor Rick Hasen argues, the conservative counterattack in this case

“could bring down the few remaining limits we have left on money in politics. It would allow virtually unbridled coordination between outside groups and candidates, giving money ever more influence over politicians and elections.”

Tim Alberta’s National Journal story on Walker hints at the history of questionable ethics among Walker’s closest staffers:

“In interviews with dozens of Wisconsin Republicans, none of whom would speak on the record when asked about Walker's weaknesses, one consistent criticism leveled at the governor is that he has not, over the years, surrounded himself with good people.”

That’s putting it lightly. In the previous John Doe investigation into Walker’s political operation, six of his aides got convicted of breaking the law by running a political campaign on the public’s dime, and they had set up an extensive secret email system to do it. In the current case, two of the top advisors to the Walker campaign, R.J. Johnson and Deborah Jordahl, were also running the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

It’s not some amazing coincidence that Walker has repeatedly found his top people wrapped up in criminal investigations. You don’t just happen to find yourself surrounded by people who skirt the rules to win unless you’re hiring on that basis.

Walker and his allies aren’t afraid of blurring the lines between campaigns and outside groups, or even between campaigning and governing. They want to eliminate the lines entirely. Pushing the boundaries of propriety to score ideological wins is what Walker does. It’s who he is.

Alberta identifies Walker as “a rock-ribbed conservative in a genial, unexceptional package,” and notes that he’s a 2016 contender because he’s “perfectly attuned to the mood of his party's right wing, presented in a way that doesn't alienate the establishment.”

The most striking part of Alberta’s story is how surprised Wisconsin’s elected leaders - supporters and opponents alike - were by what Walker did when he came into office. Elected in 2010 after a campaign promising competent management and job growth, Walker chose instead to the grant the wish list of the hard right.

For Walker, it hardly matters that his promises of job creation aren’t even close to being met, and that Wisconsin’s economy is trailing that of its neighbors. Those promises were a ruse all along, a sales pitch meant to put him in position to implement his real priorities.

The two most effective and efficient ways for ordinary people to counterbalance the overwhelming power of corporations and the wealthy - in workplaces and in the public sphere - are through elections and collective bargaining. So that’s what Walker went after first. He eliminated collective bargaining rights for state employees, cut back early voting, and signed into law a new gerrymandered state legislative map to cement his party’s gains.

Writing in The New Republic, Alec MacGillis looks at the way Walker built his statewide and national image: by exploiting and enlarging partisan and cultural divisions, and becoming the de facto leader of the state’s talk-radio conservatives. Now, he’s looking to turn that success into a run for the White House.

And when he does, you can bet that he’ll put the same billionaire-friendly, legally-ambiguous style of fundraising and campaigning to work, in pursuit of divide-and-conquer policies.

Walker is a hard-right operative playing a long game. He has used Wisconsin as a laboratory for his model of politics - racking up right-wing legislative wins and pushing the limits of campaign finance. He may not be a criminal, but he’s been remarkably successful at shifting the balance of political power, making sure influence winds up in a much smaller number of much more conservative hands.

The “Wisconsin model,” in policy and in political strategy, has left Wisconsin worse off. Heaven forbid he get a chance to make it the model for America.

Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He's on Twitter as @sethdmichaels.