Nine weeks ago, when alleged conservative wunderkind Scott Walker was riding high, I rightly dismissed him as “a clueless newbie unfit to lead.” But I never imagined that he’d suffer such a precipitous flameout.
In his sudden exit from the Republican race yesterday, he did manage to say something politically smart, and I’ll get to that soon. But first, the autopsy:
It takes supreme ineptitude to plummet from the top of the heap to zero percent, but Walker pulled it off with his serial flip-flops, hapless clarifications, and inexplicable stonewalls. Someone should’ve warned this guy: “Just because you beat up on unionized workers in your own backyard, doesn’t mean you’re ready to take your act national.”
What an embarrassment he was. On the issue of birthright citizenship, he took three positions within nine days. When first asked whether birthright citizenship (constitutionally guaranteed to anyone born on American soil) should be ended, he replied, “Yeah, absolutely.” When asked the same question a few days later, he said, “No.” A few days after that, he said, “I’m not taking a position on it one way or the other.”
He pirouetted on the immigration issue, declaring in March that “I’m not a supporter of amnesty,” after having stated on the record, back when he was Milwaukee county executive, that allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain legal residency was just fine with him. And just two years ago, he told a Wisconsin newspaper that “it makes sense” to give those immigrants a path to citizenship. Conservatives began to question his spine; a diarist on the right-wing site Red State site declared, “Spoiler alert — you may conclude that Walker is a flip-flopper.” Walker, in panic mode, doubled down by suggesting that maybe we should build a wall on the Canadian border.
Heck, Walker couldn’t even muster a position on evolution: “I’m going to punt on that.” He voiced that doozy during a visit to London, where he had gone to burnish his non-existent foreign policy credentials. And he demonstrated his non-credentials by insisting that fighting unionized workers in Wisconsin had prepared him for the fight against ISIS. And by declaring that he’d “terminate” the Iran nuke deal on Day One, a mindless move that would gain us nothing and damage relations with allies.
Even his anti-union creds did him no good. Truth is, Walker was a one-trick pony.
Most Republican voters probably don’t care much for unions, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to vote for a guy with a union-busting brand. In the latest Gallup poll, 42 percent of Republicans give labor unions a thumbs-up approval rating (among Americans generally, it’s 58 percent approval). And 2011 Republican dropout Tim Pawlenty says, “Labor issues and employment issues are certainly important and interesting, but they’re not by themselves enough to sustain a presidential campaign. If you rank-ordered the top 30 things that Republican base voters are about in terms of what drives their vote, that might be a second- or third-tier issue.”
Maybe Walker could’ve leveraged his narrow brand if not for the fact that his charisma is on a par with a potted plant. He virtually disappeared during the Republican debates — trumped by Donald Trump’s brassy bluster, but also by others on the stage (John Kasich, Chris Christie) who had no inhibitions about jumping into the fray rather than waiting their turn.
There’s more, of course, but you’ve got the gist. And lest we forget, the dropout club will surely become more populous by the time Iowa’s voters weigh in — which is exactly what Walker is hoping for. Which brings us to the smart thing he said yesterday during his exit chat.
His initial words were predictably inept: “I’m being called to lead.” (“Called” by whom? Did God tell him the jig was up? Did the Koch brothers tell him that he was a bad investment? And how do you “lead” by leaving?) Anyway, this was his key message: “I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to do the same” — i.e., leave the race — “so the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a conservative alternative to the current frontrunner. This is important to the future of our party.”
Walker isn’t wrong.
Trump benefits from a crowded Republican field. He can finish on top, pulling roughly 30 percent of the GOP primary electorate, if roughly a dozen rivals are divvying up the remaining 70 percent. And that scenario becomes seriously perilous after March 15 — because, under new Republican Party rules, that’s when states begin to host winner-take-all primaries. In other words, someone with a 30 percent plurality in a crowded field would get all of a state’s delegates. (The GOP changed the rules so that a nominee would emerge early in the process — never envisioning it might be someone like Trump.)
So who will join Walker on the scrap heap, and clear the field for a viable Trump alternative? And in such a nutty Republican race, what’s the definition of viable anyway? Does failure in the private sector make a person viable to lead the nation? Is that the new yardstick?
Scott Walker probably regrets having spent the last two decades on the government payroll. If only he had been a corporate CEO, laid off 30,000 people, was thrown out by his board of directors, and was awarded a $40-million golden parachute, he too might be inexplicably soaring in the GOP polls.