The odds still favor Walker

By now, Gov. Scott Walker‘s opponents might have the requisite number of qualified signatures to force a recall election in 2012. If you want to remove him from office, bring your lunch because you’re trying to accomplish something difficult.

We already have a hint of what’s to come. Armed with a seemingly unlimited war chest, the Governor’s television advertisements appear to be overwhelming those of the opposition. To their credit, the Walker critics appear to be more on message than they were during the legislative recalls, but it’s not a lead pipe cinch they can remove him even if they get the 500,000-plus signatures required.

If job creation doesn’t pick up, I’ve predicted that Walker would put some of the blame on President Obama, whose regulatory thrust is cited by some business interests as the reason national job creation is so lackluster. On a recent trip to Green Bay, I spoke to Walker at the New North Summit, where he made mention of that very critique. “Elections are more than anything about the future, not the past,” he stated, perhaps engaging in wishful thinking. “We’re going to lay out some of the same things we laid out today about how to help small businesses grow for people who work here.

“For us, it means a greater commitment to streamline the process and make it easier to do business, but we’re also going to put a focal point on the fact we need allies in the federal government who understand the same thing – that we don’t put up barriers to growth and opportunity.”

While the state has about 20,000 more jobs than it did when Walker took the oath of office, job creation did not just slow to a crawl in the second half of the year, it shrunk. Despite the fact that 88% of CEOs surveyed by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce now think the state is headed in the right direction, and most forecasts call for moderate job growth in 2012, it hasn’t translated into a job-creation pace that will make it possible for Walker to meet his goal of 250,000 new jobs by 2015.

I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about that goal, not because it hasn’t been done before, but because the current economic climate makes it impossible to reach. Walker supporters will point out that former Gov. Tommy Thompson accomplished the feat with Ronald Reagan’s pro-growth policies at his back; conversely, they will add that Walker is trying to reach that goal with President Obama’s regulatory regime serving as a stiff headwind.

The Governor’s critics will greet that with a “no-excuses” retort, but that’s what they are likely to hear. They are going to see more advertisements about the purported benefits of the controversial budget repair bill, which is what sparked the recall.
Depending on your point of view, one of those benefits appeared in the mail last month, as school property taxes dropped by about 1%.

The Governor’s legislative onslaught continues. Lower tax rates, a predictable regulatory climate, and tort reform will continue to occupy his time, as will streamlining the permitting process for a proposed iron ore mine, grappling with a skills mismatch that prevents many jobs from being filled, and establishing a venture capital fund. Being active on these fronts is one of the advantages of incumbency.

His greatest vulnerability might not be the collective bargaining rollback. A potential recall opponent like former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk might focus on his decision to spend millions to expand school choice while cutting Medicaid. Governing is choosing, and I’m not sure how well that choice will play.

Despite his confident facade, it was somewhat telling to see Walker urging business leaders to hire more people, which he did openly at the New North Summit. He knows job creation will be the most important metric of 2012 and beyond.

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