Gov. Scott Walker takes radically different positions when it comes to interpreting Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Constitution

September 5, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 5, 2015

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had a fascinating interview with CNBC reporter John Harwood this week. I was struck by many of the things the Midwestern Republican and aspiring presidential nominee said, but perhaps the most interesting comments revolved around deciphering the meaning of texts.

Take this exchange:

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.

The meat of Walker’s answer — near-term retirees needn’t worry, but wholesale changes must be made so the program remains viable for younger workers — consists of wholly generic Republican talk about popular social welfare programs. But the most intriguing part of the governor’s reply involves his preamble.

First, some context. Harwood seems to be referring to this 1961 speech by Reagan. (See here for additional details.) The future president and conservative-saint-in-the-making ended his peroration by warning that unless Americans succeeded in foiling a bill intended to launch Medicare,

[T]his program I promise you will pass, just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow, and behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country. Until, one day, as Normal Thomas said, we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don’t do this and if I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.

I don’t think that the past 54 years have worked out as the Great Communicator predicted they would. (Perhaps this is why Reagan wasn’t known as “the Great Prognosticator”?)

At any rate, I was struck when Walker, who was born in 1967, said, “I can’t judge what he meant at the time.” Really? Reagan’s language seems plain enough to me.

Later in the conversation, Harwood raised the topic of the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that President Franklin D. Roosevelt created by executive order in 1934 to finance and insure foreign purchases of U.S. products. This summer, Congress declined to renew the bank’s charter. Harwood mentioned Walker’s recent grant of $250 million to help build an arena for a privately owned National Basketball Association team and asked why taxpayer help for the Milwaukee Bucks is justified when aid to Boeing and other corporations isn’t.

Walker’s reply:

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.

So Scott Walker declined to parse the meaning behind the utterances of Ronald Reagan in 1961 — but he was eager to interpret the meaning of a document that was ratified in 1788? And a document, furthermore, that was crafted not by one man but by a group of 55 delegates, all of whom were born more than 200 years before Walker himself?

How can Walker be so gun-shy about responding to Reagan’s 20th-century speech and so certain about an 18th-century instrument?

One other point about this:

It’s a given of conservative thinking that nearly everything is more efficient when the federal government delegates it to the states — much as it’s a given of liberal thinking that nearly everything is more efficient when the federal government appropriates it from the states. These assumptions need to be questioned.

Consider environmental issues. Toxins released into the air and water often have their biggest impact at points that are often dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of miles away from pollution sources. Given this, what incentive does, say, Michigan have to control impurities that harm denizens of, say, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania while affecting Michiganders not at all?

Hey, just asking, governor…

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