For five long years, Wisconsin has been fiercely divided by diametrically opposing views of our Republican governor.
To his conservative devotees, Scott Walker has never wavered in sticking it to public employees, the progressive elite and the ill-defined but definitely-not-like-us “takers” clustered in Madison and Milwaukee. On all issues, economic and social, he’s eschewed compromise, which they regard as courage. But with compliant GOP majorities in the Legislature and state Supreme Court, one is hard-pressed to see any threat to his agenda here.
To progressive critics, enmity toward Walker has not really focused on his conservatism; heck, Tommy Thompson was a conservative, yet grew to be admired by both sides. No, the visceral emotion is based on two factors. First is Walker’s campaign habit of deceit about his after-election intentions — his assaults on labor and reproductive rights come to mind. Second is Walker’s smug penchant for disenfranchising the 47 percent of voters who didn’t vote for him but, just like his backers, actually do belong to that euphemistic class of “hardworking taxpayers.”
That broad narrative is fixed in granite and gathering dust.
But now as the first GOP presidential debate approaches on Aug. 6, a series of new and potentially damaging anti-Walker themes has emerged that might complicate his presidential ambition. I have noticed six.
Is he ready for prime time?
Let’s start with his being likened to Sarah Palin, who as governor of Alaska in 2008 was thrust into the spotlight of a presidential campaign as John McCain’s running mate. Palin, you will recall, was ridiculed for her lack of intellectual curiosity and depth.
The New York Times recently mined a similar theme with Walker, reporting that while admirers call him “authentic,” “real” and “approachable,” two words no one uses are “smart” or “sophisticated.”
Later in the story was this: “His lack of knowledge in the foreign policy area has been a problem because, well, you want your commander in chief to be confident on those issues,” observed a county GOP chairman in New Hampshire.
Recognizing the problem, the Times said Walker advisers tutored their candidate at extensive meetings about the Islamic State, Iran and Russia as well as about human rights abuses, border security and immigration policy.
If you aspire to lead the free world, perhaps one should have exhibited some intellectual curiosity about that world somewhere along the way. For all his fawning over Ronald Reagan, the president that Walker most resembles is George W. Bush, famous for trusting his gut on huge decisions and then seeking rationales to justify it. That approach got us a war in Iraq.
As former Obama adviser David Axelrod told me in an interview last week, you cannot hide in a presidential primary. I guess, for Walker, it may be like answering true-or-false questions your whole career and then suddenly facing essay questions that demand analysis, context and nuance. I can’t wait.
Can he win a general election?
This narrative has actually been sharpened by, of all people, Donald Trump and his unhinged bombast. Here is how: My favorite Trump characterization, paraphrased from Hillary Clinton via the New York Times, is that he represents the “unbridled subconscious of the Republican Party, who says in direct (and offensive) terms what his party rivals have been saying in veiled and polite ways for years.”
Those “veiled and polite” references aptly describe Walker. He has scurried ever further to the right on social issues, as in no exceptions for rape and incest on abortion restrictions, as well as on immigration issues, to appeal to the arch-conservative Iowa GOP caucus voters.
There is much hand-wringing in the GOP establishment about whether the party’s nominee can win the general election if forced to the very outer fringes of the right in the primary. For his part, Walker seems unconcerned, as if he thinks voters will accept another shift by him toward a more moderate tone. Good luck with that.
Will Wisconsin haunt him?
Trump has been a devastating critic of Walker’s record as governor.
“Wisconsin’s doing terribly,” Trump said last week. “It’s in turmoil. The roads are a disaster because they don’t have any money to rebuild them. They’re borrowing money like crazy. … The schools are a disaster.”
Two days later, Trump tweeted: “When people find out how bad a job Scott Walker has done in WI, they won’t be voting for him. Massive deficit, bad jobs forecast, a mess.”
Democrats in Wisconsin can yell all they like about Walker’s plummeting approval ratings in the state, how he has harmed education and borrowed excessively, but for a high-octane Republican like Trump to make those points? That’s priceless.
Is he the best Midwestern governor?
Walker is now being pitted against Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who recently entered the race. Kasich, certainly no moderate, has been far more effective at improving Ohio’s economy than Walker has been in Wisconsin.
Kasich fought to have his state accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which Walker rejected to retain his ideological purity at a cost to constituents. Kasich famously said that at heaven’s door Saint Peter is “probably not going to ask what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”
Walker and Kasich are being compared, to Walker’s disadvantage. Of course, Kasich’s lapses into compassion and open-mindedness may disqualify him for the GOP nomination even if he appears much stronger than Walker as a general election candidate.
Has Walker’s campaign lost its mind?
Rick Wiley, a top adviser, claimed recently that a Walker presidency might end hyper-partisanship in Washington. “I think he is running as a uniter,” Wiley told a Madison Club audience at a luncheon hosted by the political website Wispolitics.com.
Of the thousands of Walker’s claims through the years, that he is a “uniter” might be the single most ludicrous. His brand has and always will be, as he said himself, “divide and conquer.”
Will the flip-flops hurt him?
Once Walker no longer needed to feign moderation after winning re-election last fall, he sprinted to the far, far right. Critics have pointed to his evolving and much tougher talk on immigration, abortion and Common Core education standards, among other issues.
Steve Schmidt, McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, recently suggested on the “Morning Joe” cable show that Walker has changed positions so frequently that he now has little room to maneuver: “I think Scott Walker has filled his tank in that regard very, very early in this campaign. This is (going to) be a challenge for him as he is standing fully in the spotlight and glare of a presidential campaign.”
In the end, I suspect many Wisconsin progressives who dreaded the spectacle of a Walker presidential campaign are finding this primary season less off-putting than expected because of these blossoming narratives.
What do I think they represent?
A good start.