Scott Walker, the current governor of Wisconsin, had sounded to me like someone who’d universally be considered a top contender for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election. I’d only been peripherally aware of him, mostly from his showdown with unions in his state a couple of years ago. He withstood major protests and passed a bill that, among other things, meaningfully reduced some union powers (such as disallowing public unions from automatically deducting union dues from paychecks).
To me, that’s the kind of profile that sounds like an ideal presidential candidate: someone whom broader Americans know a bit about but not too much, who appears to have taken bold but reasonable steps in an attempt to get something practical done. Democrats in his left-leaning state successfully brought on a recall election in response to his bill, but Walker won the recall with a slightly larger margin than he had the election 2 years previous (53% vs. 52%). A Republican winning in a blue state like this should be a godsend to the party.
What surprised me then is that in several of the lists I’ve seen of big contenders for the Republican nomination for 2016, Walker’s name was below people like Rand Paul or even Ted Cruz (not to mention Jeb Bush and Chris Christie). For one thing I think the Republican establishment vastly underestimates how disinterested Americans are in electing a third Bush as President. But I also wondered if there’s something obviously wrong with how Walker comes across in person that keeps him from being considered a top contender.
I knew little enough about Scott Walker that I couldn’t identify him in a photo, and I’d never seen him speak, so I thought I’d do a little experiment. What follows are my initial reactions to watching him speak for the first time (on youtube), to see what might immediately stand out to those who may soon be encountering him for the first time, especially swing voters like myself.
Video 1: Iowa Freedom Summit, Jan 2015 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnwHEyOg7Fk)
I don’t know what the Iowa Freedom Summit is, but I can only imagine from the title. Within the first minute of his speech, Walker had already made shout-outs to Harleys and pig farming, which is a bad sign for anyone watching who isn’t a heartland ultra-conservative. But my overwhelming impression of him from this video is that of a mid-level manager. He has that air of perpetual, studied excitement about whatever he’s told to be excited about by the higher-ups, like someone rallying call center workers at a mid-year sales meeting.
Further into the speech, he goes on for some time about how he could feel the prayers of those in Iowa for him as he fought against the union protesters, and how much of a difference those prayers made. Whether God picked a side in that battle or not, to me this demonstrates obsequious pandering, unbecoming of one who is supposedly a practical governor in a state that leans against his party.
Video 2: Meet the Press, Nov 2014 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yXPVJfptTs)
This second video reaffirmed my sense of Walker as a mid-level manager, but a few other things also stood out to me. He repeatedly neglected to actually answer the questions being asked of him, which was very Romney-esque (in a bad way). That is not an attribute of someone who can listen, compromise, and be practical. Additionally, his ideas for the country apparently center around lowering taxes and easing regulations. Those are shockingly tired ideas that have a bad recent history when it comes to what is clearly becoming a defining issue for 2016: rising wealth disparity and flat middle-class wage growth.
Now I see why he’s so low on those lists. Not a contender for President, no how, no way.
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First, we’re apparently reading very different lists. I’ve often seen him listed as a top contender and rarely seen Paul or Cruz listed up there. (Which is good, since I’d immediately dismiss the list as incredible.)
Second, while I haven’t watched the videos myself yet, it sounds as though you’re describing a strong candidate. Ability to fake excitement in a speech someone else wrote for you (about topics your advisers chose for you) is an essential campaign skill. So is sticking to script even in the face of questions you’d rather not answer. From what you’ve said, I imagine he’ll have successful debate performances (like Romney). And he’s got enough name recognition, especially in conservative circles, to make it to that point. In other words, it sounds to me like he’s got a real shot at the nomination.
Whether he can then win the presidency or would make a good president? Well, that’s a whole different set of questions…
[More after I watch the videos]
Jason, there’s a difference between coming off as excited and coming off as trying to be excited. And I think a big part of Romney’s “flip-flopper” or “over-managed” presence came from his inability to answer questions without sounding like he’s rattling off talking points. These features may get a candidate through the primaries, but I will predict now that if Walker manages to win the Republican nomination and Clinton wins for the Democrats, she’ll take the presidency.