Is Scott Walker to the Right of Ronald Reagan?

I somehow missed Kevin Drum’s February 11 post quoting a San Francisco State political scientist who in turn was using a Stanford professor’s methodology to argue that Scott Walker’s more conservative than any GOP presidential nominee since before Ronald Reagan.

This post definitely caught Sean Trende and David Byler’s attention, leading to a very elaborate (if polite) dashing of cold water on the Scott-Walker-as-the-New-Barry-Goldwater hypothesis, if that’s what you want to call it. Trende and Byler come at it from several different directions, illustrating the advantage columnists with relatively few time and space limitations have over a blogger who has to make do quickly with the news material at hand. As it happens, I agree with one of their arguments against the underlying DIME system of Stanford’s Adam Bonica, which assigns ideological “scores” to politicians based on the characteristics of his or her donors.

While donors probably tend to support candidates who generally share their ideology, other factors might affect donor decisions – what issues the candidate focuses on the most, the candidate’s public persona and life history, how much a donor simply “likes” a candidate – and all of these preferences are rolled into this rating.

As Trende & Byler note, Barack Obama’s pre-convention “rating” in 2008 was very far to the “left.” Does that mean lefty donors (assuming that can really be measured accurately) thought he was as lefty as they were? Or simply that he got them all? Or perhaps that they knew he was “moderate” but was less “moderate” than Hillary Clinton? Or maybe that they thought he was more electable? Or because of the historic character of his candidacy? It’s entirely unclear, but it is clear rating a candidate’s ideology on his or her donors is perilous and ignores all sorts of context issues, particularly in terms of the choices available to donors.

In the end, though, my only real disagreement with Kevin involves his conclusion: that Scott Walker is a lot more conservative than he seems. He could have that backwards in a way that helps explain why conservative donors are attracted to Walker: he’s conservative for a blue state governor. Why is Walker, and not, say, Rick Perry, famous for ferocious attacks on the collective bargaining rights of public employees? Because public employees in Texas don’t have any collective bargaining rights to begin with. The same is true of Walker’s famous conservative evangelical religiosity, with God telling him to do this and that. Deep South Republicans talk that way all the time. So thanks to his context Walker seems more conservative than he necessarily is, and–here’s a big bonus for him–in a way that simultaneously creates an electability argument. If he can get re-elected in Wisconsin after taking positions that nobody would think twice about in deep-red states, he’s a brave conservative warrior and one who has proven he can persuade swing voters either despite or because of his hammer-headed characteristics.

This is the same dynamic that attracted a lot of conservatives initially to Chris Christie until he praised Barack Obama, expanded Medicaid, and mocked Islamophobes. He also get himself into ethical and potentially legal trouble, a problem that could yet take down Walker a few notches. But in general, Walker has successfully walked an ideological tightrope that Christie hasn’t negotiated so well. That by no means suggests he’s to the right of Ronald Reagan. But he’s conservative enough to become a hero to other conservatives who hate their enemies even more than they love their friends.

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.