While Rick Perry campaigned in South Carolina Thursday, criticizing Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain while bragging about his own pro-business record, another controversial conservative governor was hanging out in Texas: Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor, who sparked a firestorm last spring with his effort to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for state employees, keynoted a lunch at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's annual legislative orientation, held at the Hilton Hotel. Outside, a large crowd protested with signs supporting the effort to recall the polarizing Wisconsin chief executive.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF)—a think tank with a clear and aggressive policy agenda of slashing government until it's all but nonexistent—is a dominant player in Texas conservative politics. While the Texas Legislature won't meet until next year, TPPF's annual policy orientation is nonetheless a gathering of many big names in Texas politics, and its panels often help set the conservative agenda. Not surprisingly, the group ferociously defends Perry's record in Texas, arguing that the Texas model is the one every state might emulate. Walker was there to tell them just how much he agreed. But not before a Russian-doll-like series of introductions set the stage for him.
"If America is where the world turns for liberty, Texas is where America turns," began Brooke Rollins, the president and CEO of TPPF. Then came Wendy Gramm, the wife of former Senator Phil Gramm, Ronald Reagan's favorite economist, and a woman now perhaps best known for sitting on Enron's board during its scandal. She currently chairs TPPF's board of directors. She was introducing Steve Moore, the former head of the Club for Growth.
In case Walker's appearance didn't already have enough gravitas, Moore decided to offer some scale. He explained that Walker is "a hero of our movement" for having taken on "the evil empire of the public employees' unions." "I have very rarely seen such a profile in courage," Moore told the crowd.
When Walker finally walked on stage, the room of conservative policymakers gave him a standing ovation just for showing up. You might say it was a friendly crowd.
The thing is, though, that none of Walker's actions sound particularly revolutionary in Texas. The Wisconsin governor outlined his policy approach—tort reform, lowering taxes, and dismantling union power—to a crowd that lives in a right-to-work state with low taxes and few regulations. Walker hardly needed to explain why raising taxes wasn't an option. For most Texas Republicans, to do so would be heretical. While Wisconsin protests against Walker were bringing that state to a standstill last year, Perry signed a budget slashing state services, including a more-than 10 percent cut in education funding, and it's still unclear whether there will be any political ramifications. In a state where Republicans have won every statewide race for over a decade, the thing Texas conservatives are sometimes missing is an enemy.
Walker, on the other hand, isn't lacking for foes. Walker's war stories about dealing with protesters and fighting against the Wisconsin teachers' unions captivated his audience. "Collective bargaining is not a right," he told the cheering crowd. "Collective bargaining is an expensive entitlement, and it's time we stood up and put the power back in the hands of the taxpayers!"
"The reason I became the number-one target of 2012 public employees' union is because I took away their money," he went on, later noting that after his policies took effect, one union fired 42 percent of its staff. The crowd chortled at that. Walker noted that he would almost undoubtedly face a recall election this summer and that the opposition had more intensity and enthusiasm than the taxpayers he'd been protecting.
When Rollins came back on stage to thank the governor, she seemed enchanted. Walker's story, she said, reminded her of Ronald Reagan's speech on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. She read selections from Reagan's speech that detailed the courage of Marines, and explained that "the courage and the incredible heart that it takes to do the right thing is something that is missing from the public square."
She then noted that she was "not comparing the AFL-CIO to Germans."
That didn't stop the crowd from giving Walker his second standing ovation.