Scott Walker: Strong on Paper, Weak on Closer Inspection

Scott Walker is a better candidate than most. But he still represents a party that is struggling to adjust.

Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26
Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26 (Gage Skidmore)

Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, announced he would stand for his party’s presidential nomination on Monday. While a more credible opponent to the frontrunner, Jeb Bush, than most of the other dozen contenders, Walker could yet struggle to come out on top.

Walker’s candidacy had been expected for months and was even announced in a Twitter message sent out in the governor’s name on Friday before it was quickly deleted.

A likable Midwesterner who gained national fame in 2012 when he saw off a recall challenge after curtailing the collective bargaining rights of some public workers, Walker could seek to unify social conservatives and the more pragmatic, business-friendly wing of the party. But both constituencies also have their doubts.

Social conservatives wonder if Walker is really one of them. Despite coming out strongly against the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality last month, Walker attended a family gay wedding reception and his wife has said she doesn’t share his position. He also reversed his earlier position in favor of giving illegal aliens in the United States a path to citizenship.

On abortion, he switched the other way. During his last campaign, Walker said decisions about terminating a pregnancy should be kept between a woman and her doctor. Yet as governor, he outlawed abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy.

The “establishment” of the Republican Party worries more about Walker’s foreign policy views.

Earlier this year, he seemed to compare fighting the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria with battling unions in Wisconsin, saying he had the “confidence” to lead because he “took on” 100,000 protesters in Madison.

Walker rather seems overly confident in the positive effect of American leadership, saying the country wouldn’t face so many crises abroad if only it had a “strong president” who made “serious statements.”

Perhaps Walker will wise up as a candidate. But his simple rhetoric isn’t resonating so far with either neoconservatives, who advocate a muscular foreign policy, or more thoughtful conservatives, who worry if America hasn’t overstretched.

Both also have a better candidate in Jeb Bush who seeks to position himself between the realism of his father, George H.W., and the kneejerk interventionism of his brother, George W. Bush, both former presidents.

Social conservatives also have better candidates to choose from, including Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, both from Texas, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Nobody doubts their views on abortion, gay rights or immigration. All three are more popular with evangelics who make up a sizable voting bloc in the Republican Party.

Walker’s appeal rests primarily on his reputation as a union busters and a tax cutter and the possibility that he might persuade blue-collar voters in the Midwest to give Republicans another chance. Most haven’t voted Republican since Ronald Reagan left office.

But these so-called “Reagan Democrats” didn’t necessarily share Republicans’ zeal for capitalism, globalization and public sector layoffs when they voted for them in the 1980s. They are more likely to support Democrats and their regulation, protectionism and big state — except when that spectacularly fails, as Reagan convincingly argued had happened in the 1970s.

Nor is this shrinking Rust Best electorate the one Republicans need to win most. The voters they really need to become a national party again aren’t all white. They are better-educated and better-off. They live in major cities and suburbs in states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia — which between them have eighty out of the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

These voters tend to favor lower taxes and less government but they are put off by Republican reactionaries who are still fighting what they consider to be yesterday’s battles, such as resisting President Barack Obama’s health reforms or entertaining constitutional reform to criminalize gay marriage.

Jeb Bush recognized as much two years ago when he said the Republican Party had become become “way too reactionary. Way too against whatever someone’s for.”

Unlike Bush and his protégé Marco Rubio, who are both comfortable in an America that is racially more diverse and socially more liberal, Walker seems to be on the side of the disgruntled minority that regrets everything Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 symbolized. If he wins the nomination, it could show Republicans have yet to come to terms with the twenty-first century — and they would probably lose the presidency for a third time in a row.

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