The Only Audience Scott Walker Cares About Right Now

According to some observers, Scott Walker committed a terrible gaffe at CPAC yesterday when, during the Q&A session following his speech, he cited his experience dealing with labor protesters in Madison as preparing him to deal with IS as president. Indeed, eyebrows were especially raised when National Review‘s Jim Geraghty published a short piece calling Walker’s analogy “awful:”

That is a terrible response. First, taking on a bunch of protesters is not comparably difficult to taking on a Caliphate with sympathizers and terrorists around the globe, and saying so suggests Walker doesn’t quite understand the complexity of the challenge from ISIS and its allied groups.

Secondly, it is insulting to the protesters, a group I take no pleasure in defending. The protesters in Wisconsin, so furiously angry over Walker’s reforms and disruptive to the procedures of passing laws, earned plenty of legitimate criticism. But they’re not ISIS. They’re not beheading innocent people. They’re Americans, and as much as we may find their ideas, worldview, and perspective spectacularly wrongheaded, they don’t deserve to be compared to murderous terrorists.

Sounds bad for Walker, doesn’t it? But this morning if you look at NR’s front page, you don’t see Geraghty’s piece. You see, at the very top, one by Andrew Johnson with the header “Walker Thrills a Packed House at CPAC.” The protesters-are-terrorists innuendo is mentioned but only as a crowd pleaser.

This isn’t just the judgment of professional conservatives. National Journal‘s Lauren Fox gave Walker’s speech an unqualified thumbs-up:

Scott Walker found his stride in a rowdy Conservative Polical Action Conference crowd Thursday during a speech aggressively touting his record as Wisconsin governor to offer evidence for why he’s ready to take on the White House in 2016….

Walker has enjoyed a strong entry into the invisible 2016 presidential primary, leading in a poll in Iowa this week and occupying the rare space between the tea party and the establishment.

At CPAC, Walker proved he can comfortably walk that tightrope. During his question and answer session, the audience erupted into cheers of “run Scott run.”

And even Mark Halperin, who has probably wagered the profits from his next Ultra-Insider book on a Jeb Bush nomination, gave Walker’s speech an letter-grade score of “A,” his highest for the seven major CPAC speakers on Thursday.

In the follow-on to the event, Walker seemed to relish bringing up criticism of his speech as more evidence of his victimization by the liberal media (take that, Geraghty!).

It’s important to remember at this point that the sole function of CPAC during a presidential cycle is to give potential candidates an opportunity to pander, pander, pander to “the base.” It is expected by this audience to the point that it takes some wildly exaggerated gestures to get over the elevated bar. Maybe Walker took some risks to do so, but there is no question a goodly number of people in the room at CPAC do actually believe public-sector union members are as big a threat to the Republic as the terrorists they seem to perceive as creeping across our undefended borders (sic!) every day.

At some point Walker’s accumulated pandering will probably begin to effect his general election numbers, but I’m guessing his people are confident that his electoral record in Wisconsin will continue to quell any misgivings about his electability, particularly among conservative activists who want to believe you can be a nasty piece of work and still attract swing voters. Right now, though, the only audience Scott Walker cares about is the one that’s cheering his “gaffes,” and calling them gaffes just gives him another grievance to add to his Stations of the Cross.

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.