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Governor Scott Walker is exactly the kind of leader conservatives want in the Oval Office. He fights for what he believes, and he believes basically all the things conservatives hold most dear. He has held to key principles, consistently and demonstrably, for years. He has not enriched himself by his office. Every major policy proposal he has made is credible and conservative. He knows the Left like no one in the field. He is a skilled executive with experience in accomplishing the kind of things we want done in Washington.
To which Republican voters have said “meh.” It’s little wonder. Walker has faced an unforgiving electoral calendar that gave no time between campaign, budget, and campaign, and the shadow of a demagogue who Trumped his outsider appeal and makes loud promises with little seriousness. But underlying all that, Walker has struggled with a predictable dilemma that may not have an easy answer: he does not talk as most Republicans expect this kind of conservative leader to talk. His manner and practiced rhetorical style belies his underlying tough core.
This is in part due to Wisconsin’s political culture, which is very different from much of the primary electorate. “Midwestern Nice” is for real. Beyond that, Wisconsin a bluish-purple state with a comparatively informed electorate and an astonishingly active conservative media. Walker’s supporters knew what he did and knew what he faced. He is not used to proving his conservatism to conservatives. He’s had their basic trust while explaining to the center that conservatism is not dangerous, but that liberalism is.
For an example, watch a little of the final recall debate from the 2012 election:
Walker doesn’t run from his policies or convictions, but calmly and pragmatically reframes them for his state, avoiding ideological language. He ducks questions freely, avoids sidetracks, and focuses on key issues. There’s almost no anger or fire, even at the critical moment (31:30) when he absolutely nails Barrett on his lack of any alternative plan. Walker uses abundant facts and figures, refutes Barrett’s, responds smoothly to sharp little digs, offers calm defenses of policy details. This is a completely different world (and a more serious one) than the one-liner debate stage next to Donald Trump.
That is how you fight and win in Wisconsin. It just might work very well in Washington, too. If a Walker or a Pawlenty had conervatives’ trust and stood against a Clinton, we’d accept this style. But that very style makes it difficult to win that trust: the mild manner comes across as weakness or lack of conviction, and the rhetorical caution as shiftiness. These impressions are not accurate, but are understandable, so long as the conservative media doesn’t look too hard. Walker cannot count on a Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh to play nationally the role of Charlie Sykes or Mark Belling, sifting through facts and informing the electorate. Indeed, conservative media at the moment is as much Walker’s friend as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Is there an answer to that dilemma? Walker has to figure out how to earn conservatives’ trust, by his own words and not his record alone, through the chaos of this crowded Trump-dominated primary. He cannot do that by veering unconvincingly between his usual caution (a defense learned on the front lines in Milwaukee, if conservatives realized it) and an aggressive bold tone that he cannot seem to make feel natural. He is no actor.
That said, he can correct a few errors. Put immigration to rest with a written plan, so that every sentence is less easily over-parsed and re-interpreted. Answer “gotcha” questions or not as appropriate, but don’t offer inconsistent rationales for doing so. Walker criticizes Trump for personal attacks; having done that, perhaps he might as well make policy distinctions. Maybe it’s time to run against Trump as if he were a Democrat. Trump started it borrowing talking points from the Burke campaign, and Walker runs better against Democrats than Republicans, anyway.
But most importantly, Walker must simply offer, with conviction, who he truly is. Remember Paul Ryan saying “leaders change the polls?” That was true in a Wisconsin budget fight, and it is true in these trivial primary clashes with the nation hanging in the balance. For example, Republicans tell pollsters they don’t want a career politician, but that is about trust, not the resume. Walker shouldn’t try to argue that he’s not a career politician (he is one), but point out that he doesn’t need to apologize for waiting until this year to begin fighting. Nor yet for challenging a corrupt county government in 2002, for giving back nearly half the executive’s salary to build authority for pushing spending cuts (and generally failing to become wealthy on the taxpayer dime), or for eight years tangling with the Left in one of the toughest counties in America.
Indeed, he should present his career in politics as the best reason for his getting the nomination. Because of that career, the Left lost real power in a way that will matter for years to come: Wisconsin property taxpayers kept more of their own money; more children can reach the hope offered by school choice; and others are alive today because – after defunding Planned Parenthood and passing an ultrasound law – abortions are down 10% in Wisconsin. If Republicans really think that is less honorable than a New York billionaire’s career, no amount of spin will help.
Walker may or may not be able to bridge the cultural divide or to break past the noise, but he cannot make himself over to be otherwise than he is. All he can do is offer proven leadership and a conservative vision and, rather than reaching for a style that does not fit, recapture the firm authoritative tone of 2011. If he does that, he will ring true again – and at least Republicans will have a choice.Published in