Scott Walker's hilarious screwup: How he messed with University of Wisconsin -- and infuriated his state

This guy is seriously the best the Republicans have? Here's why he's backtracking on a lame new education "reform"

By Heather Digby Parton


Published February 6, 2015 4:36PM (EST)

  (AP/Jeffrey Phelps)
(AP/Jeffrey Phelps)

So the scuttlebut among the Villagers is that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the GOP's Great Whitebread Hope, the man Jeb Bush has to beat. I've written before about the political establishment's habit of picking out an upper midwestern Governor in the mold of Robert LaFollette to push as the GOP's best chance to appeal to the proverbial "independents" who are desperate for a Republican reformer with results. In each election cycle you read endless arguments that start with this premise:

You could make a good argument for a Midwestern governor as the Republican presidential nominee,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The Midwest has electoral votes Republicans need to reverse their fortunes in the Electoral College.”

One could say the same thing about the West and the Northeast. The GOP could use those electoral votes just as well, but but for some reason nobody makes the case that the Republicans will win if they nominate the Republican Governor of Maine for president. This seems to be more of a beltway fever dream than anything else. Polling shows that people really aren't that "independent" and reforms are in the eye of the beholder. In any case, one need only look to past big winners Tim Pawlenty and Tommy Thompson to see how well it worked out.

Still, Walker seems to be thrilling the punditocracy even more than these bland Governors usually do. This undoubtedly has to do with the fact that he survived a recall effort and won re-election afterwards, which makes him in the eyes of the beltway some sort of giant slayer. But the fact is that he first won in the Democratic bloodbath of 2010 and then barely eked out a win in the next Democratic bloodbath of 2014. In the middle of those two off-year Republican landslides, he was recalled! No other Governor in the nation was recalled, but Scott Walker was and that somehow makes him a great moderate reformer who is a GOP national hero. By that logic, more Governors should want to be recalled so they can be admired for their political brilliance.

Walker is also seen as a very serious threat to rest of the GOP field because he is popular among Republicans in Iowa. But then so was Pat Robertson and he didn't have the benefit of sharing the same media market at the Wisconsin Governor does. And many Iowa winners of both parties litter the graveyard of presidential dreams. Being popular there is not a sign of political savvy, it's a sign of ... being popular in Iowa.

None of this is to say that Walker has no chance or that he doesn't have a nice set of qualifications for the GOP primary voter. He is an extremely right-wing Christian who is very conversant in the language of hardcore social conservatism. (See: popular in Iowa.) This is a valuable skill for any GOP candidate who needs to navigate the treacherous waters of Republican party politics without seeming like a zealot to the rest of the country. And his initiatives to restrict the right to vote are catnip to Republicans of all stripes. (If there's one thing they know it's that they cannot win if everyone who is eligible to vote is allowed to cast a ballot.) And if there's one comparison to Ronald Reagan that actually makes some sense it has to be the crown jewel of his political achievements: union busting.

Still, Walker is something of a clod who gets himself into trouble time and time again. It's not just that he speaks in tangled syntax that only a Navajo Code Talker could love. Joan Walsh noted a perfect example in this piece about Walker's opponent in the last election: [T]he bigger trend is not if I have a gender question, it’s actually that she’s off the chart from where a Democrat normally is, gender-wise, with male voters as opposed to female." Ok.

It's also not just that he's been dogged by corruption scandals throughout his tenure. He has escaped any serious consequences so far with the clever use of partisan courts and big money backers like Club for Growth. These are all problems for any serious candidate.  But what can you say about this latest dust-up in which Walker decided to change the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin in ways that reveal him as a cretinous throwback:

Here's the proposal from Wisconsin Senate bill 21 (p. 546):

SECTION 1111. 36.01 (2) of the statutes is amended to read:

36.01 (2) The mission of the system is to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extendknowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and toserve and stimulate society by developing develop in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.

The concept that the university should serve the public good is called The Wisconsin Idea and it's been around for a very long time. It's so beloved by people of Wisconsin that it's evidently on plaques all over the place. Here's one:

I don't know that we should be shocked by this."Improving the human condition" is definitely a heresy for anyone who wants the Republican presidential nomination. (For more on the historical importance of this Wisconsin Idea, check out this great piece on the controversy by Charles Pierce at Esquire's Politics blog. And this background on another of Walker's assaults on higher education, here.)

After the changes were revealed publicly Walker made a hilariously fatuous claim worthy of Rosemary Woods and the 18 minute gap: somehow those changes just appeared and he didn't know nothin' about how they got there and anyway it was the University's fault for "overlooking" it. He has had to backtrack from that as well, admitting that his people did make these changes and the university official argued vociferously against it.  But none of it is his fault because well, it just isn't. Or anyone else's.

Walker and his people didn't have to do this, after all. Obviously, some right winger in his entourage had been in a meeting of the Ayn Rand Society back in 2000 where they all got drunk on Zimas and complained about that plaque being an example of liberal indoctrination and thew pinky swore they'd get rid of when they took over the world. And so they did.

This is the kind of thing that should, but won't, call into the question the political establishment's assurance that Walker is a fantastic politician who can persuade the rest of the country that he's a moderate reformer. Would a brilliant politician ever say something as ridiculous as this?

To me, in the end it was a confusion out there," Walker said of the controversy. "It was a mistake that someone made. Someone assumed one thing when the idea was we weren't going to add anything more (to the budget), they assumed that that meant we were going to keep a blank, simple mission statement. That's why I immediately said yesterday in a tweet, 'It's no big deal.' "

Actually, now that I think about it, there were an awful lot of beltway mavens who thought Sarah Palin was pretty darned brilliant at one time too. Uh oh.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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