Commentary Magazine


Scott Walker and the Fight for the Center

The week after Election Day earlier this month belonged to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But last week belonged to another Republican governor: Scott Walker. Walker was unleashed on the Sunday shows and in the days that followed it was hard to avoid the Wisconsin governor on television as he pitched his new book Unintimidated, that tells the story of his successful battle against union thugs and their political enablers. The book tour reinforced the rumors that have been percolating in Republican circles since he beat liberals who sought to recall him in June of 2012 that Walker was interested in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And, as I wrote last week, the governor wasn’t shy about volunteering himself for the job. The question is: has the PR effort on his behalf put him into the conversation for 2016 and if so, who benefits and who has the most to lose from his heightened prominence?

The definitive answer as to whether Walker is now in the mix for 2016 came not from a Republican source but from liberals. As Politico reports, American Bridge, a Democratic proxy group that is geared to help clear the way for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, took its first shot at Walker claiming that his goals for creating jobs in Wisconsin haven’t been met. Walker, who criticized Clinton as a product of a dysfunctional Washington political culture, has clearly gotten under the Democrats’ skin. Like Christie, who got his first volleys of criticism from the mainstream media after a year of praise once he started tiptoeing toward the presidency, Walker is now viewed as a Republican Democrats are more than a little worried about.

The reason why they should be worried about Walker became clear in the non-stop interviews he gave last week. While he had been demonized by the left as an extremist during his fight to reform Wisconsin’s budget process and his efforts to prevent unions from bankrupting the state, the real Scott Walker is a politician who is not easily categorized.

While reliably pro-life, Walker made no effort to hide the fact that he is not interested in running on issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives. Moreover, while he was one of the Tea Party’s original favorites, he also made no bones about his dismay about the government shutdown, which he denounced as a destructive maneuver. The fact that Rand Paul has recently said the same thing about an effort that he was part of shows just how unpopular the ill-conceived kamikaze charge led by Ted Cruz has become even on the right.

Walker also wisely stayed on message over the course of the week and refused to be drawn into any controversies about issues that didn’t relate to his reform efforts or his message about how can-do GOP governors offer the nation a clear alternative to D.C. dysfunction. Like Christie, who has largely done the same thing this past month, Walker won’t be able to stay out of the line of fire on issues like immigration or foreign policy indefinitely. But with his reelection in Wisconsin his first priority, there’s no question that he has put down a marker as a potential candidate to be reckoned with.

Walker’s first concerted attempt to inject himself into the national political conversation shows the strength of the Republican bench. The party is rightly pleased with a lineup of successful governors of whom Christie is the most famous but not necessarily the most loved by the party faithful. The subtext of the Christiemania that afflicted the media in November was that although the New Jersey governor was the Republican with the best chance to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats in November 2016, the animus felt toward him by the Tea Party and other conservatives would doom any effort to win the GOP nomination. But that wasn’t entirely correct. If Christie were to have the center to himself in the 2016 Republican contest, the odds are he could win the nod no matter how much the right hated him in much the same manner that moderates like Mitt Romney and John McCain did in 2012 and 2008.

That’s where Walker comes in. As his statements last week demonstrated, though some in the media only think of him in terms of his battle with the left, the governor combines reformist conservative ideology with stands on other issues that place him very much in the center of his party. While the gaggle of candidates competing for Tea Party and social conservative votes may cancel each other out in 2016 as they did in 2012, it now appears that Walker and Christie will be facing off for the voters who gave the nomination to Romney. But since Walker seems to be better liked by those conservatives who abhor Christie for hugging Obama and winning in a blue state, that might make him a far more formidable contender to lead the Republicans than the man who was lampooned as a fat elephant on the cover of Time magazine.

Time will tell whether Walker will stand up to scrutiny in the same way that Christie will be forced to endure years of coverage not as the iconoclast running New Jersey but as the guy who wants to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency. And he also has to first win reelection this year in a state that will never give him the kind of landslide that launched Christie into the political stratosphere this month. While Democrats are already starting to prepare to take out Walker, it’s Christie who should be worried the most about his star turn.

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