WAUKESHA, Wis. — Jumping into a crowded 2016 presidential field, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker vowed Monday to return federal tax rates to their levels under Ronald Reagan, eliminate the sequester cuts restraining Pentagon spending and tackle federal budget deficits by reforming entitlement programs and returning money and power to the states.
Mr. Walker told The Washington Times that one of his top domestic priorities would be to get the federal government out of the business of managing programs such as Medicaid, education, transportation and infrastructure, eliminating swaths of the federal bureaucracy and shifting the funding to states to manage as they see fit.
“We are going to shift power from Washington to the states because then a lot of the other challenges we face, they don’t become easy but they become easier once you tackle that,” Mr. Walker said in a wide-ranging interview just hours before he formally announced that he was joining the presidential race.
Reversing President Obama’s amnesty, repealing Obamacare, lowering taxes, canceling a “bad deal” with Iran and rolling back burdensome regulation are at the top of his agenda.
Doing things with a smile, optimism and a positive message about his plans — not others’ failures or flaws — are just as important, he said, citing the “eternal optimism” of his political hero.
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“I came of age during Reagan, and this should shock no one that my views of the world are largely shaped by President Reagan,” the 47-year-old governor said during an interview in which he invoked the 40th president about a dozen times in a half-hour.
Mr. Walker made clear that he plans to distinguish himself in a crowded field of 15 to 17 candidates by embracing conservative policy prescriptions, regardless of their perceived popularity in the media and polls. That means he plans to raise the fiscal issues that are the hallmarks of his two-term governorship, as well as the social stances he has taken against abortion and same-sex marriage, the latter which hasn’t always been popular inside his own family.
“Traveling the country, one of the things I sense people are most hungry for is someone to be themselves, to be authentic,” he said. “There are a lot of people here who don’t agree with me on every issue who voted for me because they know who I am. They say, ‘This is a guy who looks me in the eye, tells me what he believes in and then goes out and does it.’”
Mr. Walker said he doesn’t believe he needs to move to the center to win a general election.
“I’m an economic conservative. I’m a fiscal conservative. I’m a social conservative. I don’t apologize for that,” he said. “People know where I stand, that I’m pro-life and oppose gay marriage and support religious liberty. But they also know that while I do those things, it is not the only thing I focus on.”
Mr. Walker launched his campaign in this Milwaukee suburb inside a packed auditorium of cheering supporters before embarking on a five-day tour that will take him through early primary states such as Nevada, South Carolina and Iowa.
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Even before he started, Mr. Walker got a taste of what awaits him on the left when AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called him a “national disgrace” and Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that his policies were bad for American workers.
The governor is braced for the attacks, interjecting during an interlude in his interview that he believes Mrs. Clinton is a pawn of Big Labor and disconnected from everyday Americans. “She apparently has mistaken the big union bosses for everyday workers,” he said. “I’m good for hardworking Americans.”
He said tackling the federal deficit and America’s crushing long-term debt would start with transferring as many federal programs as possible to the states.
“Medicaid is a good example. Just give us a block grant at the state level, no strings attached, and we can make it work without the kind of increases we see in Washington,” he said, promising to address all three of the largest federal entitlement programs if elected.
“On the three entitlements, you send one back to the states [Medicaid] and impose reasonable reform on the others,” he said, stressing that current retirees and those soon to retire have nothing to worry from his proposed reforms.
“Absolutely, we need to tackle putting in place reasonable reforms in Medicare and in Social Security,” he said. “I wouldn’t touch anyone who is retired or near retirement. But for my generation and the ones after, I think we recognize there is a need for reasonable reforms.”
Mr. Walker also believes in unleashing the economy through a series of across-the-board tax cuts. He noted his record in Wisconsin, where he has signed 15 measures reducing the tax burden by nearly $2 billion.
“Doing it across the board, we, in effect, had the biggest bang on the middle of the tax code,” he said.
Asked what sorts of levels he thought appropriate, Mr. Walker cited the 1986 cuts enacted under Reagan, when the top tax rate was reduced from 50 percent to between 28 and 33 percent and many brackets and deductions were simplified.
“I look back at where the tax rates were under Reagan and say, ‘Boy I think that’s a pretty good role model,’” he said.
A combination of reforming the federal government and reducing tax rates could create a fast, rosy economic picture, he predicted. “I don’t think it is unrealistic to push 4, 4.4, 4.5 percent growth,” he said.
Mr. Walker, who made an enemy of Big Labor with sweeping reforms that changed collective bargaining rules for public unions and weakened tenure for underperforming state college professors, said he expect to take similar measures aimed at federal labor unions.
“We want to shift government power from the big-government union bosses to the worker,” he said. “Nationally, for us to be able to make these sorts of changes … we have to make some similar changes.”
While most of his half-hour interview was spent identifying ways to trim bureaucracy and send money unfettered to the states, he said the one area where he wants to increase spending is national security, especially at the Pentagon.
“We need to remove the sequester on the defense budget and at the very least go back to the Gates-era funding levels,” he said.
The Pentagon, he said, has become too depleted in equipment resources, troop readiness and strategy under Mr. Obama.
While promising an optimistic campaign, he repeatedly took aim at Mr. Obama and the Democratic front-runner, Mrs. Clinton, repeatedly slamming what he called the failures of the “Obama-Clinton doctrine.”
He said he would immediately revoke any deal Mr. Obama reaches with Iran if elected president.
“Iran has not substantively changed since they held our hostages for 444 days (in 1979 and 1980). This is not a country we should be doing business with,” he said, noting that his kickoff announcement speech was to be attended by a Marine held hostage in Tehran.
“I would terminate that deal on Day One and put in place crippling economic sanctions,” he said.
While promising a more robust military budget and strong national defenses, Mr. Walker tried to avoid being painted as a neoconservative hawk.
“That doesn’t mean we have to be the world policeman in every place,” he said, promising to use military force as a last resort and to balance security concerns with the privacy rights so deeply treasured by young Americans.
On immigration, he reiterated his long-held belief that he opposes the president’s amnesty program for illegals and believes any reform begins with securing the border.
On legal immigration, however, he signaled some flexibility by saying the national interest should dictate legal immigration levels and noting that workforce needs increase when an economy is growing quickly.
“I don’t believe in amnesty. I believe citizenship should have a high standard. But for legal immigration … it has to be tied to what is the impact on working American families and their wages and as part of the overall benefit to the American economy,” he said, adding that increasing legal immigration during the fiscal crisis that started in 2007 didn’t make sense to him.
“As times get better and labor participation rates go up, then you can have a policy that adjusts to that,” he said.
Though falling slightly in the polls recently, the youthful Wisconsin Republican is viewed by most pundits as being in the top tier of the GOP candidates, a chief executive from a critical Midwestern swing state with the potential to sew together a coalition of the conservative base with grass-roots activists and independents, something Mitt Romney struggled to do in 2012.