“You Don’t Have To Go to the Center to Win the Center”

Speaking of conservative orthodoxy, it’s increasingly clear that Scott Walker understands the main source of his appeal to the GOP “base” (per this report from Politico‘s James Hohmann):

Walker’s rivals have been aggressively maneuvering to caricature him as an opportunist who has lurched right on a series of issues in order to win the Republican nomination. If they succeed at portraying him as either pandering or being inauthentic, it will badly damage his brand.

The governor is working to establish himself as the leading conservative alternative to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. On Monday, he noted that he signed laws expanding gun rights (enshrining the “castle doctrine” of self-defense in the Badger State), requiring voters to show identification cards and implementing tort reform.

“We did all those things in a state that hasn’t gone Republican since I was in high school in 1984,” he said.

Walker said that he won independents by 11 points or more in each of his three statewide victories.

“You don’t have to go to the center to win the center,” he said twice.

When a political candidate comes up with a slogan-y tag line and then repeats it, you gotta figure that’s his or her central message. And as I’ve been arguing for a while, Scott Walker is implicitly presenting himself as a living refutation of the Median Voter Theorem, the much-hated (to ideologues) political science principle that parties or candidates seeking a majority must tailor their views to those of the mythical swing voter in the Center. He’s saying–twice!–to conservatives: In Wisconsin–a state carrried twice by Obama–I was the most incorrigible right-wing jerk you’ve ever seen. But swing voters respect strength and honesty, so they voted for me.

So I disagree slightly with Hohmann as to why a flip-flop charge on ethanol or immigration might hurt Walker’s “brand.” I don’t think the impression he wants to avoid is of being “inauthentic:” or “pandering:” it’s of being moderate. His primary audience right now probably doesn’t much care if he “panders” or flip-flops even further to the Right; the key thing about him is that he won three elections in a Blue State without compromising with The Enemy. This in turn magnifies his comparative advantage over Jeb Bush, who’s explicitly endorsed the Median Voter Theorem by arguing that you need a Republican who’s willing to lose primaries to win the general election.

You’d kind of like to reach out to conservatives mesmerized with Walker’s electoral record in Wisconsin and point out that all three of his victories were in non-presidential contests where turnout patterns skewed Red. I doubt very seriously he could win Wisconsin in a presidential contest. But that’s not what rank-and-file Republican activists in places like Iowa want to hear: they want to hear the dream of the Goldwater campaign is alive, and that they can win without compromise.

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.