Back when he was running for the Republican nomination for president, Scott Walker had a problem. The Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy broke the story that, as part of a broader assault on higher education, the governor’s 2015-17 budget sought to eliminate language committing the University of Wisconsin to public service in the interest of the whole population of the state.
Walker’s attempt to eliminate language detailing that “Wisconsin Idea” pledge caused a lot of controversy in Wisconsin, and nationally. It was embarrassing for Walker because it reinforced an impression of him as a political careerist who had little interest in public education or public service.
There wasn’t anything presidential about getting caught trying to eliminate a commitment that the UW hails as “one of the longest and deepest traditions surrounding the University of Wisconsin,” a principle “synonymous with Wisconsin for more than a century” and an idea that “has become the guiding philosophy of university outreach efforts in Wisconsin and throughout the world.”
There wasn’t anything presidential about rewriting the UW’s mission to do away with its historic commitment “to educate people and improve the human condition” and to “serve and stimulate society.”
And there certainly wasn’t anything presidential about the budget’s proposal to delete language declaring that “basic to every purpose of the (University of Wisconsin) system is the search for truth.”
Even in the Republican Party of today, opposing the search for truth is uncool.
The Walker budget’s attack on higher education, public service and the search for truth provoked an immediate reaction. “Mr. Walker badly miscalculated — in the state at least, and perhaps even with the national constituency he is furiously courting in campaign trips and in his fundraising,” explained the New York Times. “The citizens of Wisconsin, clearly more appreciative of the state university than is their governor, erupted through social media and news outlets, sending Mr. Walker into retreat a day later.”
The whole scheme was quickly abandoned.
Walker had been caught doing something that was practically and politically wrongheaded. And he had been forced to change course.
Or so it seemed.
Rather than acknowledge his error, Walker announced that the assault on the Wisconsin Idea wasn’t his idea at all.
It was, he said, a “drafting error.”
That sounded like an attempt by the governor to cover his political posterior.
But Walker insisted he was not to blame.
The governor stuck, absolutely and unapologetically, to his claim: “Fundamental changes made to the language describing the Wisconsin Idea in the University of Wisconsin System's mission statement were the result of a ‘drafting error.’”
The New York Times editorialized that the whole “drafting error” claim was “ridiculous.”
PolitiFact Wisconsin reviewed all the available materials regarding the attempt to eliminate the Wisconsin Idea language and determined: “Walker said fundamental changes to the language describing the Wisconsin Idea in the University of Wisconsin System's mission statement were the result of a ‘drafting error’ in his state budget proposal. But Walker’s administration had insisted to UW System officials on making the changes, giving detailed instructions on passages to be removed from state law.”
The governor’s office kept defending his “drafting error” line, claiming that "there was a miscommunication during the back and forth of the budget process."
PolitiFact Wisconsin rated Walker’s statement a “Pants on Fire” prevarication.
Yet Walker never came clean. In fact, the governor and his aides sought to keep the details of their actions secret.
Unfortunately for Walker, the secrecy scheme — like his presidential bid — has ended in failure.
The truth is out as a result of a lawsuit filed — and won — by the Center for Media and Democracy and The Progressive magazine, which argued that there was no legitimate reason for withholding records of how the assault on the Wisconsin Idea was initiated and advanced.
And the truth is that Walker did not tell the truth.
There was no drafting error.
The headlines from last week tell the story:
“Records show Walker wanted to change Wisconsin Idea.”
“Records show Gov. Walker requested changes to the Wisconsin Idea.”
“Wisconsin Idea: Records show Walker wanted to change mission of UW System.”
“Scott Walker sought changes to Wisconsin Idea, emails show after judge orders release of records.”
Every assessment of the sad story of Walker’s assault on the Wisconsin Idea and his “drafting error” claim points to the conclusion that Walker, when faced with a politically embarrassing revelation about his own wrongdoing, lied to the people of Wisconsin and to the Republicans he hoped would nominate him for president.
Wisconsinites should be asking themselves a pair of fundamental questions:
1. What else has Scott Walker lied about?
2. How can voters trust a governor who — after getting caught attacking a core principle of this state, the Wisconsin Idea itself — chose not to take the blame but instead tried to deceive the people he swore to serve?
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