In the last three months, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has gone from being just one of a crowded field of possible Republican presidential candidates to one of the frontrunners in the early going. Where other possible contenders are talking about potential, Walker can point to polls that show him to be, along with Jeb Bush, one of the only two candidates that is getting double digit support in virtually every primary and caucus state that has been surveyed so far. But with such a rise comes the potential for a fall and for all of his strengths as a candidate, a string of gaffes and hard-to-defend flip flops illustrates the perils of playing on the big stage for the first time, especially when you’ve been anointed as a likely front runner. Though Walker’s defenders will be right when they say it’s too early to be making any judgments about his capacity to thrive in the white hot lights of a presidential election, what we’ve seen from him lately has been troubling.
The genius of Walker’s candidacy was his ability to appeal to a variety of constituencies within the party. Tea Partiers and other conservatives love his stand against taxes and spending as governor as well as cheering his epic successful struggle against state worker unions. Evangelicals like that he’s the son of a minister and can speak to their concerns as one of them. Some establishment Republicans like his air of competence and support for fiscal sanity. Those who rightly want Republicans to Even foreign policy hawks seem sympathetic to him though there isn’t much in his record to justify their hopes that he will turn out to be their ally.
That’s a potent formula that makes him seem a much more likely nominee — as well as a competitive general election candidate — compared to the more narrow appeals of other Republicans including Bush who is encountering stiff resistance to his mainstream pitch on the right. But even strengths can have built-in liabilities. It’s one thing to be able to attract votes from different groups. It’s quite another to set out to pander to a variety of voting blocs. Candidates who do that are likely to get caught in contradictions or find themselves labeled as flip-floppers.
That’s what happened to Walker last month in Iowa when he strayed from his small government mantra to make an exception for support for measures that prop up the ethanol industry. Walker isn’t the first candidate to discover a new love for corn-base fuels while trolling for votes in Iowa. But that was an embarrassing departure for a man who built a reputation as someone who is willing to stand up to mobs and thugs in order to stick to principled positions.
Fortunately for Walker, ethanol is not something most voters, even conservatives, care that much about even if the subsidies doled out to Iowa corn farmers is a boondoggle that undermines the claim of Republicans to stand for small government. But his latest attempt to be all things to all people is a bigger problem.
As the Wall Street Journal reports today, Walker told a private dinner of New Hampshire Republicans on March 13 that he favors allowing illegal aliens being allowed to stay in the country and to eventually be allowed a path to citizenship. The only problem is that he’s been telling Republicans elsewhere that he opposes amnesty and citizenship for Republicans. But as the Journal notes, his prior opposition to amnesty during these early days of the 2016 campaign contradicts previous statements about illegal immigration uttered prior to his becoming a prospective presidential candidate in which he favored a more liberal stance on the issue. As late as 2013, he was backing a path to citizenship for illegals. And if that weren’t confusing enough, Walker’s office denied he’d endorsed amnesty in New Hampshire, calling the Journal article “erroneous,” even though the paper says three witnesses back up their reporting.
Walker wouldn’t be the only Republican in the race supporting amnesty in one form or another. Marco Rubio co-sponsored the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 which included a path to citizenship even though now he says the border must secured first. Jeb Bush is still advocating that position.
But the key here is to be consistent. As much as Bush’s position may alienate many conservatives, at least they know where he stands. If Walker is going to keep trying to tailor statements for specific audiences in this manner, this won’t be the last such gaffe he commits. Even worse, his otherwise bright hopes for the presidency will be blighted by charges of hypocrisy and flip-flopping. That doesn’t mix well with his tough, competent governor persona.
It may be that Walker will get better as the months pass and by the time the campaign in the early caucus and primary states has begun in earnest, he will be back on track reclaiming his image as a conservative folk hero who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in no matter how intense the pressure on him will be.
But that Scott Walker has seemed to be absent lately as the Wisconsin governor adjusts to the far more intense spotlight of a national campaign. Unless he returns, Walker’s good poll numbers will fade long before Iowa votes. Being a front-runner in March of the year before a presidential election is better than being thought of as a hopeless case. But if being all things to all people becomes your modus operandi, you’re never going to make it to the White House.