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Gov. Scott Walker on how state governance can be a model for Washington

November 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In 2012, Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., faced a recall election and won. In his new book, "Unintimidated," Walker writes about facing political pressure from public sector unions while trying to implement change in his state. Jeffrey Brown caught up with Walker to discuss what lessons he learned during his battle to stay in office.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to our interview with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the first governor in history to survive a recall vote, a distinction which has vaulted him into 2016 presidential speculation.

In a new book, “Unintimidated,” Walker chronicles his battles with public sector unions and offers his prescription for national leaders.

Jeffrey Brown caught up with the Republican governor during a visit to Washington last week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Governor Scott Walker, welcome.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER, R-Wis.: Good to be with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to start with the title “Unintimidated.” It sounds combative, tough, good guys, bad guys.

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Why that tone, at a time when Americans — many Americans say they’re tired of this kind of fighting?

SCOTT WALKER: Well, I think there’s a difference between what you see in Washington and what you see in the states like Wisconsin.

In Washington, I think in many ways probably appropriately so, most Americans see the fighting as being for the sake of fighting. They don’t feel like they’re fighting for something. They feel like they’re just fighting as though it’s a game sport.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think they see that when they watch what’s going on in politics?

SCOTT WALKER: Oh, I think so across the board, Republican and Democrat alike in Washington.

I think, though, in the states — and I think that really changed the tide for us eventually in my recall election — is, people saw what we were doing was fighting for them, fighting for the hardworking taxpayers, taking on the status quo, taking on the entrenched special interests, and for us and for other governors, I think that’s why there’s a difference out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I was in Wisconsin, I told you, for the recall election. And I — so many people on both sides said to me that they had never seen the state so divided, so polarized.

I remember the teacher in Oconomowoc who said, “I feel like public enemy number one. That’s how teachers have been made to feel.”

Given all of that, how can Wisconsin be a model for what you would like to see in Washington?

SCOTT WALKER: Well, because we have moved on.

Even in the midst of all these protests, I would still go out to public schools and read with kids, because it was a part of my reading program. I would meet usually cases in a lounge or in a library with teachers for about an hour. And I remember the second or third question on that particular day was someone who said, why do you attack, why do you hate teachers? Why are you going after teachers?

And I said, you will be hard-pressed to find any comments I have ever made about teachers as governor where I haven’t said anything but positive words about the good public servants we have. So the people who are making you feel under attack is your union leadership, and they’re doing it for politically intense reasons…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: So you just put all of that on the union leaders? Because there was a lot of intensity on both sides. There was a tone of — certainly a feeling among government workers and teachers in particular of, this is all against us, and we didn’t cause the problems of this state.

(CROSSTALK)

SCOTT WALKER: But the irony of that is, the reason why — one of the big mistakes I talk about in the book was the fact that I didn’t make the case early on for the need for the reforms, that I just went out…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: You didn’t make it early — that’s something you…

(CROSSTALK)

SCOTT WALKER: No, I talked about it in the campaign.

But from the time I was elected until the time when the reforms came up on February 11, I admit in the book, I say, I was so eager to fix things, I didn’t spend time talking about why we needed to fix them, because usually most politicians in either party talk about things, but never fix them.

What I learned — one of the lessons learned from here is that you have to do both. You have to talk about it and fix it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, where do you see the Republican Party right now? You have said, for example, you thought House Republicans were wrong to push the government shutdown.

SCOTT WALKER: Well, I think the federal government is too big and too expansive and too involved in our lives.

So what — I think I would like to see a more narrowly focused government. For what’s left, though, what’s necessary, we should show that it can work. And the optimism I show in the book is that, while I don’t see enough of it in the Washington, I see it in plentiful measure all across the country in the 30 states that have Republican governors, the nearly as many states that have Republican legislative majorities.

And the difference there is governors — not just I, but other governors that I talk about, share the lessons learned from other places around the country — are talking in terms that are much more optimistic. We’re not just against things. We’re for things. When we lay out a plan to make our citizens’ lives better, we talk about it terms that are relevant.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are a lot of people that think it is the party of no when it comes to all kinds of issues.

SCOTT WALKER: Oh, and I can see how they see that by some of the statements that come out of people in Washington.

That’s why in the states, and not just overall — but think about it. It’s not just 30 states. It’s states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Florida, Nevada. What do all those states have in common? They are historically known as battleground states in the presidential election. They were all carried by Barack Obama. Every single one of them has a Republican governor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is the Republican Party too conservative on social issues now, gay marriage, for example, abortion?

SCOTT WALKER: No.

I think, again, there’s room in that, but I think they’re — if you look at all 30 governors, all of them on social issues as well as economic and fiscal are probably more conservative than Mitt Romney. And yet we won in all those states, including many of those battleground states.

JEFFREY BROWN: But not at the national level.

SCOTT WALKER: Well, but the difference is, we haven’t had a nominee — in fact, some would argue that actually the nominees the last two cycles have been too moderate and Republicans and conservatives have sat home.

I think the bigger issue is, we have had in particular — I mention a whole chapter in this book where, when you have a void, you allow the other side to define things that aren’t the top of list of priorities. Most people in my state, I would argue most people in America, want leaders who are going to tackle the economic and fiscal issues facing us today that are the real crises here.

And I think, in the last presidential campaign, you would be hard-pressed to find a typical American voter who could tell you what Mitt Romney was going to do to make their life better when it came to economic and fiscal issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I think many Americans looking at what has happened in the election and since would say divided government, Republicans — the president wants to do this, Republicans don’t allow that.

You haven’t had to deal with divided government in Wisconsin. So what would be your — what do you think could be done to get past it?

SCOTT WALKER: My argument is, I don’t think that split government, dividing things is a good idea.

Conventional wisdom in Washington for years has been that divided government is good because of a check and a balance. What I believe happens all too often, regardless of which party — because the same sorts of things happened to George Bush when — at the end of his term, when Democrats were in charge of the House and the Senate — is there’s gridlock.

And I think the better argument is give one party a chance, give them a chance with a House and a Senate and a president. Give them a few years to see what they can do. And if you don’t like it, put another party in.

JEFFREY BROWN: You would say that even though we have a very divided country, a very divided electorate?

SCOTT WALKER: Well, I do.

But, again, you look at the — not just Wisconsin, but battleground states all across the United States where they are evenly divided. The real reforms I think you will see happening aren’t happening in the deep red states. They’re happening in the purple states, the Midwestern states in particular, where we’re tackling big, tough issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have to ask you. Should this book be read as a further move to a national stage, in fact, towards a 2016 presidential run?

SCOTT WALKER: No. In fact, I think a lot of people would be surprised. This is not a campaign book here.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you have said the next nominee should be a governor. Your description sounds an awful lot like Scott Walker.

Do you have aspirations, presidential aspirations, to be your nominee — the party’s nominee?

SCOTT WALKER: I had to work pretty hard, not once, but twice, the last two years to become governor. I will have to work hard again a third time in four years to become governor.

I’m really focused on being governor. But I do believe that chief executives that are successful make good chief executives. And whether it’s a current or it could be a former governor, I think in America today there would be 30 great candidates all across this country and a number of former governors who would be outstanding presidents, should that opportunity arise in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Governor Scott Walker, thank you very much.

SCOTT WALKER: Good to be with you.