Scott Walker’s Dilemma

 

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw_Sen5sjHQ

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.

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  1. Carol Member
    Carol
    @

    I certainly like his record in Wisconsin. But this, from that Lowry piece, rings true to me :”Some political observers say they were more surprised by Walker’s early success than by his recent decline, arguing that a candidate who doesn’t have top-notch rhetorical skills and an instinctual knack for political theater simply will not thrive on the national stage.”

    We can bemoan the American Idol nature of our electorate, and the empty suit ” Yes we can!” candidate they put in the WH, but the fact remains that there are not enough of us to win an election, and our candidate has to be able to peel off some of the real independents, even some of those Low Information Voters, in order to win. It doesn’t seem to me that Walker is the guy to do that. Maybe there is still time for him to learn, though. I hope I am wrong.

    • #61
  2. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Carol: We can bemoan the American Idol nature of our electorate, and the empty suit ” Yes we can!” candidate they put in the WH, but the fact remains that there are not enough of us to win an election, and our candidate has to be able to peel off some of the real independents, even some of those Low Information Voters, in order to win. It doesn’t seem to me that Walker is the guy to do that. Maybe there is still time for him to learn, though. I hope I am wrong.

    Here’s the bizarre thing: that’s exactly what he did very effectively in Wisconsin. I suspect, given time, he could do so nationally. But this is a crowded primary that evidently operates on as shallow a level as a general election. What I realized re-watching that debate is that maybe on some level Wisconsin is simply a more serious place. Even as liberal as much of it is. For all the lies swirling around and a few Democratic red herrings, the debate in 2011-2012 was ultimately about actual policy. And since he was right and could communicate and prove it, Walker won.

    We weren’t talking about policy tonight. Not really.

    But I was surprised by Walker’s early rise too. I didn’t expect that. And I think, in the end, it backfired. It raised expectations when he was not prepared to deliver.

    • #62
  3. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Leigh: We weren’t talking about policy tonight. Not really.

    We never do in these idiotic “debates”.  They are pure theater for sound bites and reality TV.  It’s the worst possible way to pick a serious, substantive candidate.

    Too bad the networks won’t do a series of 30 minute segments on each candidate.  Starting with a 15 minute opening statement, and 15 minutes of serious questions.   Hell why doesn’t the GOP sponsor that format, put it on YouTube and advertise the hell out of them on social media.  Instead we get “The White House Apprentice”….

    • #63
  4. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Kozak: Too bad the networks won’t do a series of 30 minute segments on each candidate.  Starting with a 15 minute opening statement, and 15 minutes of serious questions.

    That’s an idea.

    It would make it more boring, but I wouldn’t necessarily mind if the candidates were given a heads up about the questions ahead of time, either.

    But while I realize the format doesn’t lend itself to serious discussion and the candidates actually did pretty well trying to bring it in tonight, it is ridiculous there was no question on Obamacare. Last time, that sometimes seemed to be all we talked about. Now it suddenly doesn’t matter any more.

    • #64
  5. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Kozak:

    Leigh: We weren’t talking about policy tonight. Not really.

    We never do in these idiotic “debates”. They are pure theater for sound bites and reality TV. It’s the worst possible way to pick a serious, substantive candidate.

    Too bad the networks won’t do a series of 30 minute segments on each candidate. Starting with a 15 minute opening statement, and 15 minutes of serious questions. Hell why doesn’t the GOP sponsor that format, put it on YouTube and advertise the hell out of them on social media. Instead we get “The White House Apprentice”….

    The FOX debate was better than the CNN one. CNN seemed exclusively Search Engine Optimization focused; they wanted to know what Jeb thought of this thing Trump said and what Fiorina thought of this other thing. They baited us with Hewitt and then switched to the lowest form of political entertainment.

    With luck, the CNBC debate will have more policy.

    In general, Walker’s mild manner is well suited to a two person race (he’s still got exceptionally high favorables, and those should only increase if people get to know him better), but poorly suited to an 11 way race, where only the shouting gets noticed.

    This is much more so when it’s a gaffe and insult based debate; he’s not the best Jon Stewart replacement.

    • #65
  6. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    James Of England: The FOX debate was better than the CNN one.

    The questions may have been worse in this one, but the candidates were better. Well, except Trump and probably Rand Paul.

    In this one it looked as though the field in general, being to varying degrees actually conservative, decided it was time to show some leadership and deal with the fake elephant in the room.

    • #66
  7. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Leigh:

    Kozak: Too bad the networks won’t do a series of 30 minute segments on each candidate. Starting with a 15 minute opening statement, and 15 minutes of serious questions.

    That’s an idea.

    It would make it more boring, but I wouldn’t necessarily mind if the candidates were given a heads up about the questions ahead of time, either.

    But while I realize the format doesn’t lend itself to serious discussion and the candidates actually did pretty well trying to bring it in tonight, it is ridiculous there was no question on Obamacare. Last time, that sometimes seemed to be all we talked about. Now it suddenly doesn’t matter any more.

    The candidates’ forum in New Hampshire was pretty good on this. It wasn’t 30 minutes per candidate (there were 16 candidates!), but it seems as solid as we’re likely to get.

    • #67
  8. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    James Of England: The candidates’ forum in New Hampshire was pretty good on this. It wasn’t 30 minutes per candidate (there were 16 candidates!), but it seems as solid as we’re likely to get.

    But wasn’t it broken up into absurdly short segments? Or was it just so early that it was non-substantial?

    I also want them to get equal time. I won’t listen to them equally. I will tune out Lindsey Graham with no apology whatsoever. But in my nonexistent ideal world, that’s how it would work.

    • #68
  9. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    2 four minute segments each, and if you aren’t watching live you can just the ones you want. It wasn’t too far before the first debate. I feel we should have more like that.

    • #69
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