Republican Gov. Scott Walker became a hero among conservatives nationally for repeatedly winning battles against Democrats and labor unions in Wisconsin. His current fight pits him against 16 rivals for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
It's proven difficult so far. After moving to the top of polls in Iowa—the linchpin of his strategy—he has fallen behind real estate mogul Donald Trump and ex-neurosurgeon Ben Carson there. In New Hampshire and nationally, his pitch as an "aggressively normal" Midwesterner has left him lagging even further behind.
He sat down with me during a New Hampshire swing meant to give his campaign new traction. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: What is aggressively normal about a career politician, which is what you are?
WALKER: Well, public servant. A career politician, in my mind, is somebody who's been in Congress for 25 years. People just asked me at the forum here in New Hampshire if I was for term limits. I said, "Absolutely." I've applied term limit to myself. I think you get beyond 10, 12 years in the same position, and you become stagnant. You start worrying about the next election.
I think most people don't care one way or the other, as long as it's somebody who gets the job done. The biggest problem most Americans have is that they don't see any results out of Washington. I fought, I won, I got results, and I did it without compromising my conservative principles. We fought our own establishment, our own party. Then we took on the unions and the Democrats. I think people want a fighter who can win, get the results.
HARWOOD: You talk about fighting and winning. Sometimes when I hear that, it sounds to me like the emphasis is on the fighting, almost like you're running to be the hockey team enforcer.
WALKER: Well, I think right now people do want a fight in America. They do want to take on anybody. People mistakenly think the fighting in Washington is what people are angry about. The fighting in Washington makes people angry because each side fights each other and nothing gets done. They want someone who's going to fight and win for them. Who's going to fight for the right reasons—not to take on the other party, but to fight and win for them. The difference is, fighting doesn't get you anywhere. Fighting and winning and getting results, that's what matters.
HARWOOD: Nobody hugs Ronald Reagan closer than you do. He had in 1980 an electorate that was 88 percent white, and so did you in Wisconsin. The national electorate is not 88 percent white. If you took Reagan's percentages with today's makeup of the electorate, he would lose. Why is Reagan a good model in terms of the winning part?
WALKER: The demographics you mentioned, I mean it's an interesting question. The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president. Twelve states are. Wisconsin's one of them. I'm sitting in another one right now, New Hampshire. There's going to be Colorado, where I was born, Iowa, where I lived, Ohio, Florida, a handful of other states. In total, it's about 11 or 12 states that are going elect the next president.
And how we're going to win is, in a way, similar to how we won Wisconsin. The polls all had us down and out. We carried Independents by 11, almost a 12-point margin. Because what we found is many of those same Independents turned around and vote—11 percent of them voted for Barack Obama in the fall. They were, oddly enough, Obama-Walker voters, which politically makes no sense. Why? Because they were people hungry for leadership. They were frustrated because they felt that Romney hadn't offered a clear plan of what he would do.
HARWOOD: When Ronald Reagan came in, the top marginal income tax rate was 70 percent. He cut it to 50 percent. Then he had, in his second term, a tax reform that took the top rate down to 28 percent. What is Scott Walker's modern-day version of the Reagan agenda on taxes?
WALKER: Well, we're going to lay that out in about a month and a half. That would be a model—you look at '86, when I was still in high school, what he did with those changes, putting in two rates. Because you saw, in the period of time after that, some of the best sustained economic growth we'd had in modern American history. It didn't just help under the Reagan tenure, the economic boom continued into Bush 41. It actually is part of why Bill Clinton was in the situation he was in—because of the benefit of Reagan's economic plan. And he was a beneficiary of the peace dividend because of what Reagan did in terms of building up the military.
Unfortunately, President Clinton and the Congress at the time didn't use the full advantage of that to go out and make some good, long-term decisions that would have helped us deal with some of the pressing issues we have in our budget right now—even while they temporarily got a balanced budget.
HARWOOD: Ronald Reagan, as you know, strongly opposed the passage of Medicare, said it was an infringement of liberty, socialized medicine. Was he right about that?
WALKER: Well, we're not going to take Medicare away. He gave that speech, as I remember, three years before I was born. So I can't judge what he meant at the time. I'm just going to tell you, for people at or near retirement, we're not touching Social Security. We're going make sure that they have an intact Medicare system. For my generation and younger, yeah—needs to be some sort of reforms. We live in a 401(k) society. We are going to change Medicaid.
HARWOOD: Your repeal plan for Obamacare cuts Medicaid. I was talking to Governor Kasich about this a couple weeks ago and asked him about his decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. He said, "Ronald Reagan expanded Medicaid, so did I. And I did it because this was tax money that Ohio sent to Washington that I was able to bring back. And it was good for the people of my state."
WALKER: That's precisely what's wrong with the federal government—everybody thinks it's OK to take money, but somebody else is going to pay for it. We're all paying for it. We're all taxpayers. I did not take the Medicaid expansion, because I thought it would further reinforce Obamacare, make it that much more difficult to repeal it. It has. I'm still going to work with Congress to repeal it. I've got a plan to do that that starts in day one.
HARWOOD: Obamacare it redistributed money from high income taxpayers, from healthy people, from younger people, to people who had less money, who were older and sicker. Your repeal would redistribute that money in the other direction. Given the trends of income disparity in the country, why is this the right time for that kind of redistribution?
WALKER: Our system's purely about freedom. It's about giving people the freedom. The tax credit goes up by age, not by income. It goes up by age because the credit should be connected to what it actually costs people to get health insurance. It's not about a redistribution of wealth issue.
We allow people to buy into whatever—give 'em the freedom. We give patients as consumers the freedom to choose where they want to go or—frankly, part of our plan says if you want to pool together your resources as consumers, and pick your own plan, you can do that on your own. You have the freedom to take this tax credit, to take your money and pick where you want to go—or if you want to have health care at all. We don't have a mandate. We wiped the mandate out. We say you can control your own money, with money for a health savings account. Whether you have your own health care plan through your employer or you buy one individually, it's all about freedom.
HARWOOD: You oppose the Export-Import Bank on the grounds that it is crony capitalism, government using tax money to pick winners and losers. You recently approved $250 million for an arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. Why is taxpayer help to a business like the Milwaukee Bucks justified, but it's not justified to help Boeing and other companies to compete?
WALKER: To me it's bigger than just that. I oppose (Ex-Im) because I don't think it's the proper role of the federal government. I actually read the Constitution.
The Constitution doesn't say local and state governments can't do things. It says the federal government (is) narrowly defined in its responsibilities. And those things that aren't spelled out in the Constitution are inherently the rights of the states. On transportation, education, health care, particularly Medicaid, environmental protection—I'd take all those powers, all those responsibilities in funding and send it back to the states, where it's more effective, more efficient and more accountable.
In the case of the state, (it's) putting in less than $4 million a year to protect the state getting $6.5 million that's currently collected every time an NBA player plays in the state of Wisconsin, on an annual basis. It's a bigger community interest there. We'd be fools (not) to do this. Any good business would do that.
HARWOOD: Sheepish at all about going so hard after Hillary on email when you had a private email system when you were county executive?
WALKER: No, not at all. The stuff that I did has gone through two separate things: The Supreme Court shut it down, the previous case was shut down even after a Democratic district attorney looked into it. That's old news. Hers is ongoing.
It's two words: top secret. She told us it wasn't sensitive information. There was. She told us it wasn't classified information. There was. She said there certainly wasn't top-secret information. There was. We just had another judge say the other day that she violated the rules at a minimum. Whether she's incompetent, she doesn't know what it really is, or she's violated the law—either I think disqualify her from being president of the United States.
HARWOOD: You don't often hear Democrats say nice things about Scott Walker. But I have heard Democrats be very favorably impressed by something that they learned about you, which goes against the stereotype of powerful men with young trophy wives. Your wife is 12 years older than you. Are you aware of that reaction? And what do you think about it?
WALKER: Ha—well, the nice thing is I probably act like an old curmudgeon, so people think I'm older. My wife is beautiful and vibrant. So a lot of people think she's younger. Most people are shocked when they hear that. I don't know about the politics. But it's just who I am. I fell in love with Tonette. I felt like God called me to be married to her. And to me, it didn't matter that her first husband had died, she was a widow. She was the right person. It's one of the best decisions I ever made.