The Walker Boom and Its Meaning

I wrote a bit on Monday about Scott Walker’s appeal to the kind of conservatives who attended the Iowa Freedom Summit over the weekend. But since Walker’s now enjoying something of a boom, I expanded on my hypothesis in the weekly TPMCafe column, focusing on the Wisconsin governor’s implicit and sometimes explicit electability argument: he’s proven you can win in a blue state via confrontation rather than compromise. Indeed, while writing the column I remembered a 2013 Walker op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that told conservative readers exactly what they wanted to hear:

Polls show that about 11% of the people in Wisconsin today support both me and the president. There are probably no two people in public life who are more philosophically opposite—yet more than one in 10 approve of us both.

To make a conservative comeback, Republicans need to win these Obama-Walker voters and their equivalents across the country. In the Wisconsin recall election, we mobilized conservative voters by standing up for conservative principles against enormous pressure. But we also persuaded at least some of President Obama’s supporters to support us, too…

The way Republicans can win those in the middle is not by abandoning their principles. To the contrary, the courage to stand on principle is what these voters respect. The way to win the center is to lead.

That’s why those arguing that conservatives have to “moderate” their views if they want to appeal to the country are so wrong.

It’s hard to overestimate how seductive this pitch is to conservatives tired of being told by Jeb Bush and every MSM pundit in America that they need to clean up their act and reach out to new constituencies to win back the White House. So I think Walker starts this contest with a leg up, and just needs to keep showing he can give a fiery speech (and stay out of the hoosegow!).

Over at TNR today, Brian Beutler has a parallel but somewhat different take on Walker: in his big speech in Des Moines, he was one of the few speakers who did not bother to pay lip service to the GOP’s alleged new interest in inequality.

Just as it has dawned on the rest of the GOP field that Republicans should appropriate typically Democratic issues like income inequality and champion rather than disdain the 47 percent, here comes Walker to remind them that government dependency is a choice and that the playing field for all Americans is already level.

“In all the years I was in school, doesn’t matter whether it was in Plainfield or Delavan, here in Iowa or Wisconsin, there was never a time when I heard one of my classmates say to me, ‘Hey Scott, hey Scott, some day when I grow up I want to become dependent on the government’, right?” Walker observed near the end of his speech to knowing laughter. “In America the opportunity is equal for each and every one of us, but in America, the ultimate outcome is up to each and every one of us individually.”

I dunno. This all sounds like conservative boilerplate to me, not some conscious decision to ignore or deny inequality. I’m sure if someone puts lines in a Walker speech attacking Obama for inequality he’ll read them without missing a beat or noticing it contradicts earlier themes.

But there is something about Walker–not so much ideological fervor but sheer hammer-headed obstinacy–that makes one despair that a Republican Party, much less a (shudder) country under his leadership would be characterized by any fresh thinking. It’s hard to imagine him sitting down with the Reformicons and stretching his mind on the challenges of the twenty-first century. He’s still fighting the conservative wars of the 20th.

I had a friend down in Georgia who used to talk about this kind of Republican by saying: “They look at anything and all they want to know is whether they can eat it, f**k it, or put it to sleep.” I’d laugh without completely understanding what that meant, but I think she was saying they entirely lack imagination. Sounds like Scott Walker to me.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.