Voices
Associated Press/Photo by Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal

Interpreting Scott Walker

Campaign 2012 | School choice may be the biggest long-term winner from Wisconsin's June 5 vote

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

If I had a $100 bill for every promising politician who, when he or she first appeared on the scene got me all excited and energized-and who I then discovered had feet of clay-well, let's just say I could make a sizeable contribution to some needy cause.

All that comes to mind in the wake of the avalanche of comments that filled my mailbox after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's convincing electoral response to his opponents' efforts to recall him from office. "He's got it all!" said one WORLD subscriber. "He's the future!" another emailed me. And several dozen more of you got in touch with me in various ways to say that you too had gotten on the Walker bandwagon.

Trouble is, no one seems to be quite sure just where that bandwagon is headed. Media pundits with their predictions were all over the place. One or two suggested that Gov. Walker had earned the right to replace Mitt Romney as the Republicans' "presumed candidate" in this year's election-even though Walker had never even pretended to be in the 2012 race for president. At the other end, some argued that the Wisconsin vote would actually help President Obama's reelection chances. That would happen, they said, because the Wisconsin vote would so scare the American public at large-striking them as so radical and extreme-that they would return to the comfy promises that only President Obama can see America through the nation's current crises.

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Anticipating the future of an individual politician, though, is very much an iffy thing. Others besides Scott Walker have zipped to the top of the news cycle-and often deservedly so-only to discover how fickle a friend public fame can be. Ask Sarah, for example. Sarah who? Oh, come on! It was almost four years ago when many of us wondered whether candidate John McCain had changed the whole paradigm when he named his vice-presidential partner. But, for whatever reasons, it didn't turn out that way. Sarah Palin was and may still be an electric candidate and person. But precious little public policy has changed because of her moment in the sun.

Far better than letting ourselves get preoccupied with rising and falling stars, I'd suggest, is to keep our eyes on the direction of major culture-shaping issues. As a consequence of Scott Walker's remarkable victory, for example, how will life in Wisconsin-and perhaps in other parts of America as well-prove to be different in the months and years ahead? And sometimes it takes an election cycle or two, or even a decade or two, for such patterns to be established and confirmed. Ronald Reagan's role as a culture-changing president, for example, was not widely acknowledged in most quarters until his death-and that was 15 years after he left office.

So it may be intriguing right now to ask whether Scott Walker might end up as Mitt Romney's running mate or if he has the requisite charisma to run for the presidency himself some day. But the really important questions to ask after the June 5 vote in Wisconsin aren't primarily about Scott Walker's political future. The most important consequence of Scott Walker's key victory is likely to be its ripple effect over the next decade on the issue of educational choice.

Wisconsin has its own historic role, especially in the city of Milwaukee, as a hospitable laboratory for educational vouchers and charter schools. Now, Wisconsin has also strategically minimized the potentially hostile role of the teachers unions. More than almost anywhere in the nation, and largely because of Scott Walker's remarkable courage, genuine educational diversity may have the opportunity to flourish and thrive.

I don't mean to imply that Walker's role in public life ought to be limited to a single issue. But choice in education has been a central focus during the controversial first term of this son of a Baptist minister. If after expanding energetic voucher programs from Milwaukee to Racine, Beloit, and Green Bay, he now provides a replicable template that can be exported to the rest of the nation, I can think of no more enduring gift he could offer the rest of the nation and its desperately broken culture. If Scott Walker can do that, he won't need to worry about his political future.

Email jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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