Gov. Scott Walker didn’t win two statewide elections and become a likely presidential contender through modesty.
Like most successful politicians, Walker tirelessly promotes his policy initiatives, including those that have drawn the most controversy, such as his bill limiting public employee collective bargaining and his legislation aimed at developing an iron mine in northern Wisconsin. And although the state’s economy is severely under-performing the expectations he set in his first gubernatorial campaign, Walker is quick to attribute any good news to the conservative policies he’s put in place.
But on the bill he recently signed that significantly reduces the availability of abortions in the state — a huge political victory for conservatives — Walker is remarkably silent.
He signed the bill, which requires ultrasounds before abortions and mandates that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, on the Friday after Independence Day — just about the best way to ensure the news would reach as few people as possible.
He offered no statement on the bill specifically. Instead, his office announced that he had signed 18 different bills, most of which were uncontroversial and had passed both houses of the legislature either unanimously or on voice votes (when there is substantial opposition to a bill, a legislator will typically request a roll call vote). The statement, “Gov. Walker signs several bills into law,” seemed designed to avoid media detection. Because the bills were listed based on number, the abortion bill, Senate Bill 206, was buried at the bottom of the list.
Furthermore, the curt explanation of the bill given in the statement avoided framing the issue as a battle to protect the unborn. It was instead described as a simple medical precaution for women:
“Senate Bill 206 – relates to requirements to perform abortions, requiring an ultrasound before informed consent for an abortion, and providing a penalty. This bill improves a woman's ability to make an informed choice that will protect her physical and mental health now and in the future. Women have a choice as to the ultrasound they receive. Pregnancies that are the result of a sexual assault or incest are excluded from this legislation.”
The abortion issue got the same treatment on social media: “Spent the morning signing 18 bills into law,” Walker innocuously tweeted on Friday, offering no link to any of the legislation.
In contrast, he has been tweeting like crazy about various provisions of the state budget he recently signed into law, from tax breaks to a measure that establishes Kringle as the official state pastry.
It's not as if the ultrasound bill isn't a big deal. Planned Parenthood has announced that a provision requiring admitting privileges will force the organization to close its clinic in Appleton. "Isn't that the best news ever!!!" responded Wisconsin Right to Life on Facebook.
But Walker's silence on abortion suggests that, like many other Republicans, Walker sees the issue as a potential liability in courting independent voters, in both his reelection bid in 2014 and a potential presidential run in 2016. (A recent post in Salon.com contends that Walker can "kiss his hopes 2016 hopes goodbye" by signing it.)
And yet, his signing of the bill highlights the fact that abortion remains an issue that Republicans feel obligated to address when they control state government. For the GOP not to advance the anti-abortion cause in some way risks infuriating a powerful segment of the party’s base, which is represented by well-funded interest groups, such as Wisconsin Right to Life.
Indeed, while both Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, touted their pro-life credentials and promised aggressive action on abortion earlier this year at a Wisconsin Right to Life conference, neither of them put out any public statement about the ultrasound bill after passing it last month.
“It was clear during the debate, I got to look at their faces, it was clear there were a lot of uneasy individuals on their side,” says state Rep. Andy Jorgenson, D-Whitewater. “But they feel they have to do it because it’s one of their bigger special interest groups and there’s a lot of money that comes with that.”