Wisconsin is in the news for its epic confrontation between Republican governor Scott Walker and public employee unions. But the main reason it is front and center is that Republicans took control of the state in such a major way last November that they suddenly had the power to confront the entrenched unions.
A leading edge of that political earthquake was the election of Ron Johnson as the state's first GOP senator to be elected since 1986. Mr. Johnson, a businessman, toppled Russ Feingold, the liberal hero of the controversial McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, in a dramatic upset. The 55-year-old Johnson ran a plastics business in Oshkosh for three decades, and never planned to run for office before last year. He used to show up to work in blue jeans and sneakers until he joined the campaign trail. The first time he actually saw Washington, D.C., was when he arrived for his Senate orientation meetings after being elected.
"I had no reason to go to Washington for business," he told me. "Now my family considered visiting for vacation, but we always wound up going for the pretty mountains instead." When I asked what struck him about the place when he finally saw it, he was emphatic-he was taken aback by the number and sheer bulk of the federal agency buildings he saw. "I saw the [Environmental Protection Agency] building and thought, 'abandon all hope.'"
Johnson also furrowed his brow when recalling the size of the federal health bureaucracies he drove by. The key event that propelled him to seek the Senate seat was the passage of Obamacare in March 2010. "My daughter had a serious heart condition as an infant," he says. "She's alive today because of the modern medicine available to her that is gradually going to be threatened by Obamacare."
He says it is sadly ironic that Obamacare passed when it did because "business was on the verge of adopting innovations in a big way that would have made health care more affordable and flexible." He points to his own company's success with medical savings accounts, flexible vehicles that allow workers to buy catastrophic health care policies while using out-of-pocket funds to pay for routine services.
"I told my employees we had a choice with rising health care premiums at my company," he recalls. "They could either accept a $5,000 a year Health Savings Account and buy insurance, or the company's ability to keep existing coverage was threatened." He reports that the HSAs cut his health care costs dramatically while leaving employees with better or equal coverage. "The market was workinag and HSAs were spreading rapidly when Obamacare stepped in and imposed a one-size regulatory framework," he laments.
A member of the Senate Appropriations and Budget Committees, he's also concerned about the lack of White House leadership on entitlement reform. "There are way too many [Democrats] who don't understand how urgent the problem is," he says.
"We need a Nixon to China moment. We need someone from the party of entitlements to step forward. Nobody is stepping forward."
Johnson thinks Republicans will continue to push for spending cuts that have a chance of garnering bipartisan support. He likes Tennessee senator Bob Corker's idea of capping spending at 20.6 percent of GDP. Spending cuts are necessary, he said, "to send the right signal to investors and consumers" who are concerned about the country's economic trajectory. Unless the economy starts growing again, he added, Congress will never be able to get the deficit under control.
Actually, he believes the country may be facing a crisis sooner than most think.
"Time is running out before people around the world no longer believe we have fiscal credibility," he warns. "Like during the Depression, a bank failure in Europe or our inability to sell our debt here at home could trigger a series of events that spiral out of control."
It's that sense of urgency that compels Johnson to so vigorously defend what Governor Walker is trying to do in his home state. "Taxpayers have not been at the table in Wisconsin, when union contracts are negotiated. It's about time they are. If we don't create a climate of economic growth, none of those health and pension promises made to state retirees will be honored."
The argument that the federal and state governments should cut spending to boost economic growth isn't often heard in Washington, but then again, Johnson is as new to the place as the fictional Jimmy Stewart was when he portrayed a freshman senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
But it's another fictional portrayal of a fresh political face battling cynical special interests that provided inspiration to Wisconsin's freshman. During the campaign, liberals attacked him for referring to his admiration for Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's dystopian novel about an America where the leading innovators go on strike out of frustration with government rules and dictates.
During a debate with Russ Feingold, Johnson was asked about what the book meant to him. He said it portrayed how producers in a welfare state can be so overburdened with regulations that they fail to create the jobs the country needs. "It's a warning of what could happen to America," he told the audience.
"When you hear people talk about a tipping point, that's what we're concerned about.… We have more people who are net beneficiaries of government than are actually paying into the system. That's a very serious thing to think about."