Not the most popular governor in school, but most likely to succeed
I occasionally get asked how I can take certain positions on some issues even though I know they won’t be popular. That question was thrown at me again recently about another column I wrote and it got me thinking about the experience of former Michigan Governor John Engler. As I mulled it over, I started comparing Engler to Governor Scott Walker, and I began to think about the trend in Walker’s poll numbers. The result is this op-ed for the MacIver Institute on the limits of unpopularity and the benefits of being right.
When Engler took office in 1991, Michigan was in equally dire financial straits, including a billion dollar budget deficit. Engler led the push to enact welfare reform in his state and, just as in Madison twenty years later, the protests began. Before long the Reverend Jesse Jackson was joining the “Englerville” protests. At one point in 1991, Engler’s approval rating dropped to 18%. It looked like he was going to serve only one term.
After voters passed an education initiative, Republican pollster Tom Shields doubted it would help Engler’s popularity. Echoing the criticism of Wisconsin Republicans 20 years later, Shields said, “Engler is too partisan to get a huge bounce.”
Then, as time passed, the public began to see the effects of Engler’s reforms. The budget was brought into balance without raising taxes. The state soon had a budget surplus, and unemployment fell below the national average.
Engler was re-elected easily in 1994 and 1998 with over 60% of the vote each time. Before Engler’s time in office came to an end, he cut taxes 32 times, saving the taxpayers $20 billion. He was responsible for the creation of 180 charter schools and reduced the state’s welfare rolls by 70%. Perhaps most relevant to the Walker experiment, Engler reduced the state workforce by 20 percent, excluding state troopers and prison guards.
Walker’s approval rating also appears to be rebounding as the public is discovering that the sky is not falling as a result of Walker’s budget reforms.
It’s an interesting comparison and it says something about contemporary politics that’s counter to what we’re told about mass opinion.