Matt McDaniel

8 minute read

The Scott Walker Trial Balloon

If you’re at all interested in American politics, you will by now have heard about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. While we are still over forty weeks out of the Iowa Caucuses and the official start of the 2016 primary election season, it’s fair to say that most prospective presidential candidates are getting their messages and funding together to prepare for a run at the nation’s highest office. While no national figures have declared, officially, that they are running for President, the declaration is more of a formality than a kick-off of a campaign. Very early polls in Iowa suggest that Governor Walker has become a favorite candidate on the Republican side of the race for the White House.

 Expectations and Early Gains

Governor Walker’s early prominence isn’t unexpected. First, he’s a two-term governor. To Republicans, that means he’s on a short list of folks to be taken seriously for a run for President. Every President from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush was either a governor or a Vice President before becoming President. The go-to logic on this is that “executive experience” is essential for an American President. This idea is amplified by Republican criticisms of President Obama who had no such experience as a first-term Senator from Illinois.

Governor Walker’s credentials for Republicans are again strengthened by his survival of a recall election precipitated by Walker’s support of anti-union legislation. In effect, the talking point surrounding Walker’s electability is that he has run for governor three times in his two terms and won each time. Especially in an election where Republicans will likely have to run as underdogs against the presumptive coronation of Hillary Clinton, having a candidate able to make the case that he has a proven track record of making himself a desirable candidate, even in the face of media opposition, is crucial.

The union-busting efforts of Governor Walker shouldn’t just be relegated to the event that led to the recall election. Rather, the consequences of that legislation have led to a rapid loss of union power in Wisconsin. With public sector unions stripped of their ability to collectively bargain, individuals are seeing an immediate rise in income and economic freedom. If the states are indeed incubators of new ideas, the dismantling of public sector unions in Wisconsin could herald the end of union power across the country as more and more states see how much unions are holding back individual prosperity.

Governor Walker’s prominence in the Party has continued to rise with his thinly veiled preparation for a presidential run in 2016. The first candidate to open an office in Iowa, Walker also gave a well-received address in the first-in-the-nation caucus state last month. The two events taken together make it clear to even the most casual observer that Walker’s sights are set at making a bid for the White House. Walker’s position is also strengthened by the apparent entrance of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush into the primary race. At first glance, the name recognition and fundraising apparatus and Bush’s disposal would seem to hurt the position of someone like Governor Walker. However, with no other candidates as direct about their presidential ambitions at this stage (a lot of names are being thrown around and a lot of money is being invested in trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, but Walker has opened an office in Iowa and Bush has been laying out his campaign positions), Walker is seen as the alternative to Bush.

 The Scott Walker Appeal in the Pre-Campaign

Jeb Bush is seen, rightly or wrongly, by the non-establishment wings of the Republican Party as a threat to some of the right’s core positions. Specifically, Bush’s nuances on immigration, common core, and his cozy relationship with Party elites have made him unpalatable to the vocal conservative grassroots apparatus. Perhaps more damaging to Bush is the growth of powerful Political Action Committees (PACs) that are increasingly turning their funds to support conservative candidates. Walker, seen as having the conservative bona fides lacked by Bush, has quickly gone from one of several governors who could challenge Bush to running a pre-campaign that has outpaced the nascent Bush operation.

Despite Walker’s clear appeal to the base, and perhaps his ability to unite a core group of support early in the pre-campaign that may block other sitting conservative governors (read: Kasich, Pence and Jindal) from making any headway in getting support to launch campaigns, should be strong indicators of his ability to go far in the 2016 GOP Primaries. However, recent national coverage of Governor Walker seeks to taint Walker’s campaign before it has even begun.

It’s important to realize that hit pieces on Scott Walker will do likely to dissuade ardent supporters. In the short term, seeing that the “mainstream” media and liberal news outlets are going after the Governor before he has even declared his candidacy actually has a threefold benefit to Walker: it raises his national prominence, it may draw sympathy from conservatives who inherently distrust the media, and it gives Walker the opportunity to define himself through effectively and deftly answering difficult questions.

 The Benefits and Pitfalls of Early Criticism

The first two of those benefits are patently obvious: more name recognition and sympathy from the base are positive. However, in an era where one picture on Instagram or a rant on Twitter can undermine a carefully crafted public image, the name recognition being generated for Walker in the national press and among the blogosphere and punditry has not always been associated with a positive spin. Again, this is unlikely to affect the way the majority of the Republican base perceives Governor Walker. However, especially this early in the pre-campaign, having to fight an uphill battle against negative portrayals without the funding that comes later in the campaign is extremely difficult.

This leads to the third potential benefit of Walker’s early prominence: the opportunity to effectively convey a message to a national audience despite “gotcha” journalism. The reason why this is only a potential benefit is because so often it is a crushingly poorly-managed burden. Poor responses to the media quickly resonate and, as above, filter down to the soundbite/headline consumers who pursue little or no investigation of the issues. Like it or not, Governor Walker is seen as a frontrunner in the 2016 primaries. Everything he says and does will be scrutinized. Moreover, he is a target for the media. Politics aside, being a media target is completely understandable. Walker needs a definition for the average American and the national press feels that it’s their job to give him one. Is there an insidious conspiracy to define Walker as a lunatic union-bashing tyrant and thereby cap his potential supporters? Probably. Is that the reason every journalist interviewing him is asking tough questions? No.

 Let’s Talk About “Gotcha” Questions

Here’s the important point: there are a bunch of reactionary articles floating around criticizinggotcha” questions from media sources and bemoaning the fact that Republicans and Democrats are treated differently by establishment media. These articles and opinions urge strong reactions and refusal to submit to questions as the remedy for journalists who lack the integrity of fair reporting. This is the political equivalent to punching someone because it feels good: they want to see you get mad. Going on a rant about the media rewards bad journalism while making you look like you’re skeptical of legitimate questions.

Governor Walker should have to answer questions of national importance if he expects to run for President. His answers will, undoubtedly, be skewed to get clicks on headlines and fit a 140 character limit. Angrily declining to answer questions or giving non-answers is not appropriate on important issues. However, “gotcha” questions on issues that are unimportant to the characteristics of national office, while still needing to be answered, need to be approached from the position of not giving bad soundbites. Two good recent examples of how to fail at nuance come in the form of an evolution question Walker received in London and a question regarding President Obama’s Christianity and patriotism. While these questions are ludicrous and meant to elicit image-damaging responses, they deserve answers.

An appropriate answer to the evolution question is, for example, “I’m not a theologian or a scientist, but if the Pope says that religion and science are compatible and I’ve talked to a lot of scientists who have deeply held religious beliefs, I don’t see the two issues at odds.” Now, of course this answer may ruffle the feathers of the most hardcore fundamentalists on the right, but its broad appeal far outpaces the minor damage to an ultra-Christian image. Moreover, answering that question as soon as it’s posed and not trying to look like you’re pandering to a small sliver of supporters isn’t the headline that punting out of fear is.

An appropriate answer to the President’s religion and patriotism question is, for example, “when we question people’s patriotism or faith, we create distractions.” Another possible response is, “I’ll focus on removing the beam from my own eye before taking a splinter out of the President’s.” The first answer, similar to the one Walker actually gave in response to the question, raises Walker above the fray of an ridiculous argument and it criticizes the journalist without hostility. The way this answer is superior to the one given by Walker is that this answer uses the “language of the left” to promote Walker’s image. The second possible answer is a “who am I to judge” line that plays on Christian imagery. It neither confirms nor denies the premise of the question and reflects humility.

As long as Governor Walker remains the early frontrunner, he should expect to have his background looked into, his ideas and values questioned, and a continuous stream of inquiries meant to trip him up in his statements. Only time will tell whether this early battering will so tarnish his image so as to make him totally undesirable by the time the primaries kick off, or will work to refine and hone his campaign to push him to the White House.