The conventional wisdom after Republicans lost two presidential elections to Barack Obama was that the GOP needed to concede the premise of certain Democratic talking points. Suddenly immigration reform became urgent enough for a prospective GOP candidate to lead the effort in the Senate. And even more suddenly, talk of inequality has emerged in conservative circles. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if, instead, Scott Walker is right?
The Wisconsin governor is enjoying a bit of a boomlet right now, as Peter Beinart notes in a sharp piece on Walker’s unapologetic conservatism. And he’s earned it. He won three statewide elections in four years, and did so with national media attention and the concerted lunatic tactics of public unions (death threats, violence, compulsive Hitler comparisons) aimed at him and his supporters. He won comfortably and with a smile on his face. Walker never lost his composure and never stooped to the level of his fanatical liberal opponents.
None of this is news. What’s changed is that Walker has, in the last week, gone national. His speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit earned rave reviews, and was followed with what appears to be the first pro-Walker presidential ad. And everyone seems to have noticed what Walker’s opponents in Wisconsin have learned the hard way, repeatedly: he’s a formidable politician. This should worry his GOP rivals not only because of Walker’s win streak, but also because Walker is doing something many of them aren’t: he’s setting the terms of the debate instead of following the terms the Democrats have set.
A good example of how this plays out concerns Mitt Romney, who had been flirting with another presidential run. Romney was hurt by his infamous “47 percent” remark in which he appeared to write off voters he considered contentedly dependent on government. It became a catchphrase for the Republicans’ so-called empathy gap.
Before deciding to pass on running again, Romney had been trying to undo the lingering damage of the Monopoly Man reputation by expressing his concern for the poor. He was rewarded for stepping into this rhetorical bear trap with a giddy President Obama in full class warrior mode, as Politico notes:
“Even though their policies haven’t quite caught up yet, their rhetoric is starting to sound pretty Democratic,” Obama said of the Republicans during a House Democratic retreat. “We have a former presidential candidate on the other side and [who is] suddenly deeply concerned about poverty. That’s great, let’s go. Let’s do something about it.”
Even when trash talking, the president is not exactly a wordsmith. But the point, clumsy and juvenile though it is, shines through: whatever your policies, to simply care about poor people makes you sound “pretty Democratic,” as the intellectually cloistered president sees it.
This helps Democrats because even if Republicans come around to demonstrating the empathy they supposedly lack, it sends the message that the Democrats were right. Walker rejects the premise.
Beinart explains how the media missed this story until now:
Walker’s rise illustrates the pitfalls of media coverage of the GOP race. Not many national reporters live within the conservative media ecosystem. They therefore largely assume that in order to win over the non-white, female, millennial and working class voters who rejected John McCain and Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidates must break from conservative orthodoxy, if not substantively, then at least rhetorically. Journalists are also drawn to storylines about change. Thus, when potential GOP candidates show signs of ideological deviation, the press perks up. After 2012, Marco Rubio garnered enormous media attention for his efforts at immigration reform. Rand Paul’s transgressions—whether on foreign policy, civil liberties or race—make headlines almost every week. In covering the launch of his new Super PAC, journalists made much of Jeb Bush’s discussion of income inequality and his fluent Spanish. Most recently, reporters have lavished attention on Mitt Romney’s new focus on the poor.
The lesson, as I interpret it, is that the press and the Democrats speak the same language. That’s not surprising; the mainstream press, especially during national elections, functions as a messaging office for the Democrats. Because of this, they just assume that in order to be a serious presidential candidate you have to be like them, like the Democrats.
Walker doesn’t agree. And he’s been extraordinarily successful of late by not agreeing.
Part of the media’s terrible coverage of national politics is the reliance on the personal: it matters to them who is saying it more than what is said. Romney got tagged as uncaring because he’s rich. But the classic conservative policies don’t reek of plutocracy when coming from the new crop of Republican stars, many of whom came from modest beginnings or are the children of immigrants, or both. Walker doesn’t even have a college degree, which itself is incomprehensible to modern Democrats, who are elitist and credentialist and genuinely don’t know what life is like in much of the country.
And neither does the media. Which is how someone like Walker could be so successful and still blindside the national press, who would struggle to find Wisconsin on a map. And it’s why Walker is a threat to other high-profile Republicans who have accepted the Democratic/media framing of the issues in order to make a national pitch. Only one of them can be right.