Years ago, my job at Madison Newspapers included oversight of marketing for the Cap Times, the Wisconsin State Journal and the other smaller brands we owned.
In that role, one lasting lesson was this: To effectively promote a “brand” — whether that brand is a person or thing — your core assertion has to be credible.
For example, if you run Honda, you can tout your cars as dependable or affordable, but you can’t claim to beat the luxury Lexus brand on quality. People just wouldn’t believe you and in turn doubt everything else you had to say.
That old lesson came to mind when I read Gov. Scott Walker’s claim in a year-end interview with Jessie Opoien, political reporter for the Cap Times.
Walker said that his goal is to be governor of all Wisconsinites, not just those who support him. As ludicrous political claims go, that one matches any by Donald Trump, who sets the standard.
Walker told Opoien: “The best thing people can do is try to govern for everyone — particularly when you’re in an executive position, probably even more than a legislative. It’s one of the things I valued in my time being a county executive before being governor, because it made me realize, even in the things you say and how you say them, you’ve got to be careful … because you realize you’re speaking on behalf of all the people in your given state or jurisdiction.”
Let that sink in.
Up is down, black is white, and Walker gives a hoot about what the nearly half of voters who opposed him think, those who have been repulsed by his relentless undermining of Wisconsin, from our diminished education system to our weakened environmental safeguards to our crumbling infrastructure.
As we enter 2017, Walker and fellow Republicans control Wisconsin government even more firmly, including through a compliant and politicized state Supreme Court majority.
One can imagine the Walker political brain trust talking about how the governor should begin to position himself for 2018, when he presumably will run for re-election.
Perhaps an adviser noted that with the GOP in full control here and in Washington, D.C., the party whose foremost skill is not in governing but in demonizing foes will now instead get the blame for everything. Moreover, the current culture of blame-placing and simmering resentment will endure, so one imagines that Walker is being advised to show a softer, more conciliatory side.
After all, the next electorate Walker faces will not be extreme right-wing presidential primary voters. It will be the statewide general election voters who might be less enamored of eight years of his acknowledged “divide and conquer” political style, not to mention his self-serving presidential run.
Consider his troubling approval numbers, which he brushes off. The most recent Marquette University Law School poll in late fall had 42 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving of his performance.
Yet for Walker, endeavoring to morph his personal brand seems a tall order given that his current one is as clearly defined and fully established as any in modern state political history.
He is what I would call the anti-Tommy.
I covered the state Capitol in 1986 when Republican Tommy Thompson won his first governor’s race. He then governed as if he was representing everyone, not just for those within his political base. Thompson was subsequently rewarded with landslide victories and a 14-year run as governor, the longest-serving executive in state history. But that Tommy brand would not work today; first-hand proof was his defeat in the U.S. Senate race in 2012.
Walker’s actual brand, in stark contrast, has proven to be a home run for his deep-pocketed donors who banked on his willingness to never waver from their far-right wish list whatever political flak came his way.
Shortly after his 2011 inauguration and without warning, he “dropped the bomb,” as he put it, with Act 10’s attack on public sector unions. Public education in the state has never been the same. Perhaps most importantly to him and his donors, a critical force of political opposition, the state teacher’s union, was decimated.
And, of course, Walker’s financial and rhetorical abuse of the University of Wisconsin has apparently played well outstate even as the damage to the stature of the flagship Madison campus as a world-class research institution is only now being felt.
No, Walker’s brand promise has been to play the dutiful puppet for national conservative money eager to make Wisconsin a laboratory for ideas from groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, which creates the kind of far-right model legislation that makes arch conservatives giddy.
In 2015, that Walker brand should have elevated him in the crowded GOP presidential primary, but, in debates, he was a wooden candidate with a cringe-worthy stage presence.
Walker is what he is: a scripted, uncharismatic political automaton willing to ignore the views of nearly half of state voters while exploiting and even extending an unprecedented urban-nonurban polarization, all for the sake of advancing his career.
The latest evidence has been his refusal to consider any tax increase to maintain Wisconsin’s crumbling roads — whatever the policy merits — so he can preserve his record of anti-tax purity.
Governor for all the people?
Yes, in the same way that Trump will be a unifying president.
Speaking of Trump, Walker is copying the president-elect in blaming the media. Walker told Opoien that 94 percent of bills he has signed into law as governor have had bipartisan support, which he said people are often surprised to hear.
“I blame in part the media,” he said. “People assume, at least in Madison or in the state government that we’re always fighting.”
Asked to elaborate, the governor’s office said Walker as governor has signed into law 1,058 bills, 1,011 with more than just Republican votes, so the actual percentage was 95.5 percent.
Using this measure, a single Democratic vote makes a bill “bipartisan” and some minor housekeeping measure counts just as much as Act 10.
Imagine the bumper stickers and yard signs: “Scott Walker … He’s everyone’s governor.”
Good luck with that.