Walker Shrinks from Challenging Republican Orthodoxies

The Wisconsin governor calls himself a fighter, but won’t say anything that might unnerve the right.

Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin makes a speech in North Hampton, New Hampshire, July 15
Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin makes a speech in North Hampton, New Hampshire, July 15 (Michael Vadon)

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker bills himself as a fighter who will do the right thing even if it is unpopular. But when it comes to challenging some of the orthodoxies of his own party, he shrinks.

“My record shows that I know how to fight and win,” Walker said earlier this month when he announced his candidacy for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in Waukesha.

His signature achievement as governor was facing down the unions in Wisconsin when he enacted legislation that curtailed the collective bargaining rights of public workers. The law, which helped shrink a multibillion dollar state deficit, attracted national attention. Tens of thousands of labor sympathizers descended on Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, to protest it. President Barack Obama weighed in, accusing Walker of unleashing an “assault” on trade unions. The governor had to fight a recall election — which he won with 53 percent support.

The episode made Walker a hero of the right. He is third in the polls, after former Florida governor Jeb Bush and property tycoon Donald Trump, for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination. His favorability rating is 56 percent, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey (PDF) — higher than most candidates, including Bush.

So why is he so afraid to potentially unnerve reactionaries in his party who are more likely to vote for a more outspoken social conservative in the primaries anyway?

When he was asked this weekend on CNN if he believes being gay is a choice, Walker didn’t give an answer. “I don’t have an opinion on every single issue out there,” he said.

This prompted The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen to ask the governor when he decided to be heterosexual.

Walker says he opposes marriage equality but he attended a family gay wedding reception. Social conservatives may wonder if he’s really as committed to reversing the Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized marriage for gay couples last month as he claims to be.

It isn’t the only issue on which Walker is struggling to be straight with voters.

During his last gubernatorial campaign, he said decisions about terminating a pregnancy should be kept between a woman and her doctor. But as governor, he interfered with that decision, outlawing abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy.

He said he was in favor of giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship — before he wasn’t.

When Rudy Giuliani, the former Republican mayor of New York, said in February he doesn’t believe Barack Obama “loves” America, Walker, sitting just a few seats away from him at a dinner, didn’t speak up. And when he was asked about Giuliani’s comments on CNBC the next morning, he refused to take issue with them, saying, “The mayor can speak for himself.” Nor would he say he does believe the Democratic president is a patriot. “I’m not going to comment on what the president thinks or not.”

When he was asked on a trade mission to London, England if he believes in evolution, Walker dodged. “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another,” he said. Which would be fine if it were true. But many conservatives in the United States choose to ignore science and insist that creationism be taught in schools, making this a political issue.

Perhaps Walker hopes to appeal to social conservatives and the more pragmatic, business-friendly wing of his party at the same time. But by refusing to take sides, he could end up disappointing both.

Tex Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum are all more convincing culture warriors while there is little doubt that the Republican “establishment” will coalesce around Bush.

If Walker is to elbow his way to the top of the field, he may want to show some of that fighting spirit he had in 2011 when he defeated the unions and start telling voters what he really thinks.