MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker may have picked the perfect time to get out of Wisconsin for a few days.
The prospective Republican candidate for president is traveling in the United Kingdom this week on what's officially billed as a trade mission. It's a trip that also turns the Wisconsin governor's focus toward foreign policy and away from a kerfuffle at home with the University of Wisconsin.
Few things in the state are as revered as the "UW," a fact Walker collided with last week when he proposed cutting $300 million from the university system's budget and removing the century-old philosophical underpinning of the school's mission statement.
The reaction, including from his normally loyal Republican allies, took some shine off the largely positive reviews Walker received nationally after his speech last month at a conservative political conference in Iowa.
"It's one of the most spiteful, mean-spirited and counter-productive things I could imagine, going after the university in this situation," said former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican and a UW graduate who retired this year after 32 years in the Legislature.
The reaction from others was more muted. "I worry that the magnitude of the cut might be too much to absorb this quickly," said Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Yet the criticism and concern highlighted the balance Walker must strike as a likely candidate for president still on the job as governor.
Unlike former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, out of office for eight years, or the several U.S. senators considering a bid, Walker is a chief executive who can't avoid responsibilities with the potential for political risk, such as writing a budget or negotiating with state lawmakers whose agendas doesn't always match his own.
Walker has already said he's willing to scale back the cut. The backlash over changes to the mission statement — a beloved ideal known as the "Wisconsin Idea" — was so strong and swift that he backtracked within hours, calling the proposal a mistake he hadn't known about.
"It is undeniably a challenge when you're a governor of a state and you're running for office," said Nick Ayers, a national Republican strategist who managed Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's presidential campaign in 2011. "But if your run for president matches the agenda, vision and principles of what you've done at home, then it's a manageable process."
Indeed, Walker has already begun folding his UW plans into his broader narrative to conservatives in Iowa and across the country that he's offering "bold ideas" at the state level that show true leadership — unlike what he calls the stagnation in Washington.
He has compared UW cuts to his moves in 2011 to help solve a budget shortfall. Walker proposed making teachers and other public workers pay more for their pension and retirement benefits, while also effectively ending their collective bargaining rights. The initiative sparked an effort to remove him from office, which ended in 2012 with Walker's victory in a recall election.
"We weren't afraid to go big and go bold," Walker told conservatives at the Iowa event in January that drew other potential presidential candidates. "Maybe that's why I won the race for governor three times in the last four years. ... If you get the job done, the voters will actually stand up with you."
Andrew Hartman, a history professor at Illinois State University who has written a book on the cultural politics in America, points out that conservative attacks on higher education have a long history in the GOP going all the way back to Ronald Reagan's run for California governor in the 1960s.
"That can only help him in the Republican primaries," Hartman said of Walker's targeting UW. "It certainly can't hurt him."
Walker also wouldn't be the first Republican governor to stumble when it comes to a state's popular university. In 2014, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to force the University of Texas into a series of reforms to de-emphasize research, cut tuition and increase enrollment. In that fight, a powerful coalition of Texas's top political and university donors, along with business leaders, rallied against Perry's plans.
In his state budget for next year, Walker proposed giving the 26-campus system more autonomy from state laws and oversight. He breezily suggested the school could make up $300 million in cuts — or 13 percent of the university's state aid and 2.5 percent of its total budget — if professors taught one more class each semester.
Professors shot back that Walker has no understanding of the hours spent on research and other work outside of teaching classes, highlighting a potential vulnerability in Walker's presidential resume — his lack of a college degree.
The issue was compounded a few days later, when it was discovered deep in Walker's nearly 2,000-page budget he had proposed changing the university's mission statement to focus on fostering career development, eliminating the Wisconsin Idea — a charge to seek a broader truth and understanding of the human condition.
The Wisconsin Idea dates back to 1907 and the progressive politics of the time, but it's grown to be the heart of the university's relationship with the state. It focuses on the principle that research conducted at the university should be applied to help improve the lives of people in the entire state beyond the classroom.
"The university isn't some far-off place," said Schultz, the retired Republican senator who called Walker's proposed cuts reckless. "It's relative to people on a daily basis."
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