Take, for instance, Burke’s opponent, Governor Scott Walker, who was reelected Tuesday. Just the week before, Walker had released his own “plan” for the next four years. His proposals consisted largely of pablum so generic (“Remove barriers to starting a new company and expanding a small business”) that there isn’t a living American who would oppose them—or naively believe that Walker originated or wrote them himself. Walker’s most widely touted promise, largely because it was a rare specific proposal, was to drug-test recipients of public benefits. The idea has been around for 30 years. And that’s the rule in politics, not the exception—which suggests the real issue underlying this controversy: how our politics have constricted our policies.
* * *
Mary Burke is a lifelong businesswoman, not a politician. Because she lacked a lengthy political record, her opposition spent a good deal of time attacking her for not “having a plan” until she issued the obligatory document. It was to be expected, however, that whatever she released would be subjected to merciless and unfair attack, because that’s how we conduct campaigns nowadays. Burke faced the competing demands of putting together a “plan” as quickly as possible and making it as perfect as possible. That’s where I came in.
Twenty years ago, I became a gubernatorial chief of staff when the politician for whom I worked suddenly succeeded to the governorship for six months. Later I started a consulting firm to continue doing what I had liked about being chief of staff: policy and the strategy around effectuating it. While we’ve worked primarily with Democrats, we have also served three Republican governors, including two likely 2016 GOP presidential candidates.
Besides developing initiatives in a wide range of areas for state and local governments in a majority of states across the country—or, more accurately, in large part because of that knowledge—my firm also has been hired to provide public-policy advice to people running for office: roughly 75 gubernatorial candidates in almost every state, a dozen U.S. Senate campaigns, mayoral and city-council candidates, and two presidential campaigns.
I found Mary Burke to be as knowledgeable of policy issues, as possessed of her own detailed views on the subject, and as personally engaged in shaping her platform as almost any candidate with whom I’ve worked. She started with a clear conception of how the economy functions and what she felt state government should and shouldn’t do to address it. She had read widely and talked with a cross-section of policy experts and concerned citizens. Our job became simply filling in the background facts and details—with virtually every passage, at Burke’s insistence, heavily footnoted.
Reading the subsequent coverage of what occurred, you’d get the impression that my staff and I lazily cut-and-pasted our way through the project. In fact, the Burke jobs plan went through at least a dozen drafts and near-endless rewrites. Two of us worked nearly full-time—which for us meant 16 hours a day, seven days a week—for several weeks researching and writing the position paper. Practically every line in the paper involved extensive research. As background for four sentences on Wisconsin's water industry, I read studies by its Water Council, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Harvard Business School; in response to a question from the candidate about the transferability of community-college credits, we located the University of Wisconsin’s internal policy document on the subject.