Will the Republican Party return to its Midwestern roots? Until recently, the possibility seemed remote, thanks to the shift of power to the South and the Sunbelt. But with Scott Walker’s rise in the 2016 presidential contest, it’s worth asking: What is left of Midwest in 21st-century Republicanism?
Whatever comes of his presidential ambitions – he is under attack from all sides – the Wisconsin governor is trying to tie his story to the history and traditions of the Midwest, the ideological flyover country that has nevertheless produced a new wave of leaders. Ten of the 12 Midwestern states, including five of the six most populous ones (the lone exception is Missouri), currently have Republican governors. In addition to Walker, this group includes two other possible 2016 contenders, John Kasich in Ohio and Mike Pence in Indiana, as well as Rick Snyder in Michigan and Bruce Rauner in Illinois.
The first thing to note is that Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio are all either “purple” or “blue,” with a mix of urban as well as suburban and rural populations. Barack Obama captured all of them in two elections, and even Indiana went for him in 2008.
No Republican can effectively serve these diverse electorates by simply declaring himself “against” government or by rousing the conservative base. And appeals to identity politics or cultural warfare will only go so far. The emphasis falls instead on claiming to promote what one of the greatest of Midwestern Republicans, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, called “efficient, honest and sound government.”
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You can hear echoes of this approach from Walker, who has repeatedly drawn a bright line between beltway and statehouse Republicans. In November 2013, for instance, a month after the federal government shutdown that marked a low point of Republican politics in the Obama years, he wrote:
“In Washington the fight is over ‘fiscal cliffs,' ‘debt limits,' ‘sequesters’ and ‘shutdowns.’ In the states, Republicans focus on improving education, caring for the poor, reforming government, lowering taxes, fixing entitlements, reducing dependency, improving health care, and creating jobs and opportunity for the unemployed.”
Yes, Texas Governor George W. Bush said similar things when he was running for president in 2000. But Walker’s pitch is keyed to our particular moment - for instance, in his description of a curious hybrid: “Obama-Walker” supporters, that is, the roughly 10 percent in Wisconsin who had voted for both men. Potentially, there are more such voters, Walker argued, but to attract them Republicans must take up the business of governing.
More recently, Walker has said that while his policies in Wisconsin place him at the “polar” end of the spectrum from his state’s celebrated lineage of progressives, “I actually think I’m a progressive too. I think I fit in that tradition.” This too echoes Taft, whose friends and allies in the Senate included Robert La Follette Jr., a member of the first family of Wisconsin politics.
Opponents of Walker say his claim to be a progressive is disingenuous given his calls for budget and higher-education cuts and in particular his campaign to weaken Wisconsin’s public-sector unions by curtailing their collective-bargaining power. Just because he survived a recall battle (with help from the Koch brothers’ money, his critics won’t let you forget) doesn’t mean he has won the war.
John Kasich discovered the perils of tangling with labor. Elected in 2010, he pushed through a measure like Walker’s, only to see it reversed by Ohio voters a year later. Since then Kasich has distanced himself from conservatives’ new pet issue, right-to-work legislation that prohibits unions from requiring dues payments.
“It’s fair for you to ask,” Kasich replied when pressed last year to say whether he would sign such a bill. “It’s also fair for me to say I don’t live in the future.” More important, he emphasized, was “Right now in our state, we have labor peace.”
It is hard to imagine those words coming from the belligerents in the new “Freedom Caucus” of House conservatives for whom thwarting Obama and the Democrats is a conditioned reflex - and an end in itself. Those legislators, with their safe seats in “packed districts,” face far smaller risks than governors.
Walker, too, had been finessing the right-to-work debate, saying it was a “distraction” when the Wisconsin Legislature “fast-tracked” legislation. He now says he is looking forward to signing it on Monday and will reap praise from “the base” for doing so. Like Kasich, however, he let the issue play out.
For many years the map of right-to-work states has been a map of red states, and the movement’s growing force in the Midwest might seem one more instance of the Southernization of the GOP. But this overlooks stark regional differences. In the Midwest – with its giant industries around cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee – unions have commanded large constituencies for many years. And reducing their power is part of a broader Republican tradition.
It is, in fact, the outgrowth of a law that originated with Taft, the mastermind of the most far-reaching right-to-work legislation in modern history, the Taft-HartleyAct, passed in 1947, over the veto of President Harry Truman. The bill outlawed the “closed shop” (thus allowing employers to hire non-union workers) and also gave the president the authority to intervene in labor disputes.
Denounced at the time as “slave-labor law,” it remains in effect and has been successfully invoked by presidents more than 30 times when work stoppages have harmed the economy. Recently, beltway legislators in both parties called on Obama to invoke Taft-Hartley to end a labor impasse that had clogged ports on the West Coast.
Taft-Hartley helped initiate the movement for right-to-work laws. In advancing this agenda, Walker, Snyder and Pence (whose predecessor, Mitch Daniels, signed Indiana’s law) may not simply be tacking to the right, but also reacting to demographic and economic reality.
In the U.S. overall, only 11.1 percent of the labor force is currently unionized, down from 20.1 in 1983, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January. The membership rate for public-sector employees was 35.7 percent, far higher than the 6.6 percent rate for workers in the private sector.
The numbers reflected a demographic shift as well. In 2014 the “membership rate was highest among workers ages 45 to 64 - 13.8 percent for those ages 45 to 54 and 14.1 percent for those ages 55 to 64,”the report found. Among those aged 25 to 34, the coveted millennials both parties are diligently courting, the unionized share of workers is 9.8 percent - less than 1 in 10.
The labor dynamic of an earlier time – exploited workers, predatory bosses – no longer applies so neatly, especially when it comes to the public-sector workers targeted by Walker. His attitude toward government is in line with much popular sentiment. This is one reason, perhaps, that “the white working class and the middle class - animated by their distrust of government spending and taxes - have moved toward the Republicans in recent years,” as the writer John B. Judis has pointed out.
There are other issues where rigid ideological boilerplate also doesn’t apply. Both Kasich and Snyder defied Republican legislators by favoring the Medicaid expansion that became available through Obamacare. Walker, in a state that already has a generous program, worked on his own reject-and-accept variation, as did Pence in Indiana.
“In the end, there’s no real substantive difference between a federal exchange, or a state exchange, or the in-between, the hybrid, the partnership,” Walker said in 2013. This interpretation of the Affordable Care Act is more or less the argument the Obama administration is making to the Supreme Court.
Despite its broad appeal, Midwestern-style conservatism can be insensitive or worse when it comes to race. Its leaders have seldom used the coded language still common in the South. Nevertheless, Walker and Kasich have signed voter ID laws and placed limits on early voting. Both create hardships for black and Latino voters.
And Walker has drawn criticism for what can seem naïve or outmoded views of the obstacles facing many Americans today. “In America, the opportunity is equal for each and every one of us,” he said in the Des Moines, Iowa, speech that brought him renewed attention in January. “The ultimate outcome is up to each and every one of us individually.”
A growing number of conservatives, including the new contingent of “reformicons,” disagree. “The data, unfortunately, do not seem to support Walker’s optimistic claim,” the policy writer James Pethouthokis said in National Review Online. “Opportunity in America is neither optimal nor acceptable. Family structure matters. School quality matters. Where you live matters.”
Yet this criticism touches on the attraction of the Midwestern Republican - the feeling, even at this late date, that the middle of the country lies closer to the ideal many Americans have of themselves.
“No one here cares about anything other than your work ethic and your kindness and your competence,” Nickolas Butler wrote in his 2014 novel “Shotgun Lovesongs,” set outside Eau Claire, Wisconsin, during the recession-driven winter of the American dream, its days shortened and stripped to subsistence.
As it happens, Walker narrowly lost Eau Claire County in 2014. It is a reminder of the divisions he and other Midwestern Republicans face each day as they try to govern. The lessons they learn may shape the case one or another may be making to the nation in 2016.
Sam Tanenhaus, author of “The Death of Conservatism” and “Whittaker Chambers, “ is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.