Fact Checking Scott Walker’s Announcement Speech

Walker 2016 is here, and it’s rough, tough and ready to stretch the boundaries of his gubernatorial record.

Anyone who saw early photos of the Waukesha County Expo Center being decked out for Gov. Scott Walker’s “big announcement” knew what a small space it was, and the wood-paneled coziness played right into his Midwestern plainness and familiarity, like a Macy’s men’s department. Practically speaking, this meant several hundred sweating Walker fans ended up standing in the nearby overflow tent as a small Cessna-style plane circled overhead, dragging a banner that said: “Scott Walker has a Koch problem.” The extensive fencing surrounding the Expo Center and the next-door Waukesha County Airport made it easy to control the overheating masses, and protesters with handmade signs and bullhorns were effectively consigned to a roadside ditch. Sometime prior to 4 p.m., staff began turning sometimes-angry ticket holders away from the Expo Center, which is like a cross between an idling spaceship and a gymnasium. Someone yelled that it “wasn’t worth taking off work early,” and a particularly heated man complained, “I’m a former county Republican Party chairman, and I’m going to talk to the press about Scott’s incompetence!” The staffer later shrugged, explaining that this wasn’t her first political rally.

Staying outside was oddly appropriate, in the shadow of carnival rides, with the round Expo Center being not unlike one of those that spin you around until the floor falls out. No fewer than four women introduced Walker (triggering a gleefully cynical tweet from the Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice), and amid much sweat-soaked khaki, the overflow had the feeling of old fashioned county-faire campaigning. The speech itself was perhaps a bit more hawkish than many had expected. Deafening applause followed promises to confront “radical Islamic terrorism.” Not-so-thunderous applause accompanied Walker’s suggestion that the U.S. military play a more active role in helping retake land captured by ISIS in Iraq. Other red-meat moments erupted over repealing Obamacare, Walker’s taking credit for the drug testing of state welfare recipients, and the more bite-sized of his pep talk material (e.g., “Americans fight to win”).

The governor made it to approximately the 20 minute mark without mentioning Kohl’s, although you could call this the Kohl’s Campaign. He walked through his usual example of paying next-to-nothing for an on-clearance shirt then swiftly compared the department store chain’s business model – selling clothes at low prices on a mass scale – to his proposed tax policies. These would involve low tax rates spread across a broadening tax base, what he would call the “Kohl’s Curve” (a formula indebted, as he noted, to the Laffer Curve of Reaganomics fame). The amazing deftness of the Kohl’s Campaign is how it both dramatizes Walker’s frugal everyman appeal and quietly signals to major business interests around the country that he is of their cloth.

The governor’s speech functioned as a diptych, the opening page of which weaponized his accomplishments since 2011. A few of these bullets skirted reality, or were misleading, or marked a sudden shift in framing. Here are a few:


“We got rid of things like seniority and tenure.”

Taking on the academic ivory tower is another feather in Walker’s cap, and he wasted no time in flaunting it. What’s interesting is how understated his gubernatorial staff has been on excising university tenure guidelines from state law as part of the state budget (signed on Sunday). And perhaps this more understated framing is apt: According to U.S. News and World Report, Wisconsin, until now, was the only state in the country that had its tenure rules coded into state statute. The rest administer them similar to how the Badger State will now, as rules written by the UW System’s Board of Regents. Wording in the budget opens the door to rules that would allow for the firing of professors as programs and funding change, but no one has yet gone through this door. The new rules have not been written yet, and there’s no indication that the Regents plan to completely “get rid of” tenure.


“No Common Core! No nationwide school board!”

Walker appears to be suggesting that a national school board tied to the federal government is somehow wrapped up in the Common Core effort to promote a national set of academic standards. Marco Rubio made a similar statement way back in 2013, and Politifact-Florida deemed it False, explaining that the Common Core drive has primarily functioned as a collaboration between a large number of state governments and a small number of nonprofit organizations.


“We have a program right here in Wisconsin that requires people to sign up for one of our employability training programs, one of our job training programs, before they get a welfare check. And now, as of the budget I just signed, we make the same requirement to make sure people can pass a drug test. Now you can only imagine what the defenders of the status quo thought when I proposed this [sic] reforms. They thought I was making it harder to get government assistance.”

The official written version of the speech doesn’t include a plural “reforms.” It appears that Walker, while pumping up his achievements in the heat of the moment (and it was hot), perhaps went a bit too far. The original written version was structured so that Walker was only taking credit for the drug testing provision. The work-training requirements were, of course, the essence of Gov. Tommy Thompson’s signature Wisconsin Works (W-2) program and took effect in 1997. Walker was a conservative Assemblyman at the time, so maybe we’ll give him an assist.


“Four years later … Wisconsin’s ACT scores are now second best in the country.”

This is true, but only if you rank the states where 50 percent or more of students take the ACT. If you rank all 50 states, regardless of participation, the Badger State’s average composite score falls below that of 16 others (using 2014 data; 2015’s rankings aren’t out yet).


“[Vladimir] Putin believes in the old Lenin principle that you probe with bayonets. If you find mush, you push. Under Obama and Clinton, Putin has found a lot of mush over the last few years.”

Walker has trotted out this paraphrase/saying before. It’s not an easy one to verify. It appears in this book on business management, and a Texas congressman drew a similar parallel between mush, push, Lenin, Putin, Obama and Clinton in a 2013 blog post.



Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.