How do you know that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has taken at least temporary custody of frontrunner status in the race for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016? Beyond, of course, the polls that show him rocketing to the front of the pack in critical early primary states like Iowa? The political press is coming down hard on him and his nascent campaign.
After three unambiguous statewide victories in a Democratic state in just four years, Scott Walker is thoroughly vetted. If there were skeletons in his closet, the media and the myriad opposition researchers scrutinizing his past would have found them by now. “Scott Walker could very well be indicted in the coming days,” the forlorn MSNBC host Ed Schultz predicted on the night of Walker’s second statewide victory. He never was.
So, the press has taken a keen interest in catching Walker in unflattering moments or making hash out of otherwise minor controversies. Rudy Giuliani was speaking at an event for Walker when he sent the political media into a manic frenzy in which reporter and pundit alike tripped over one another to denounce what they dubbed the New York City’ mayor’s callous and quite possibly racist assertion that President Barack Obama doesn’t love his country. Only now, on day five of that story, is it finally beginning to fade from the media’s focus.
When Walker refused to denounce the former Big Apple mayor to the media’s satisfaction, they pounced. “What Scott Walker did ought to disqualify him as a serious presidential contender,” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank hyperventilated. “Clownish,” insisted Rachel Maddow Show producer Steve Benen. “Spineless,” The Washington Post editorial board averred.
And all this merely because the Badger State governor said “the mayor can speak for himself” despite conceding that his comments were “aggressive.” The press would not have been satisfied unless Walker had thrown himself upon a pyre in penitence for the sin of having attended an event at which the president’s values were questioned and his honor attacked. It was bizarre to see the political press respond to Giuliani’s remarks as though they had been personally insulted.
This episode did provide the media with the opportunity to quiz every Republican candidate about how they feel about a politician out of office for over a decade. Despite the fact that the head of the Democratic National Committee is involved in a significant quid pro quo scandal and remains suspect of interfaith marriage and the Vice President of the United States is a serial groper, Democrats are spared association with these figures by an energetic political media.
You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that Walker has disqualified himself from serving as the President of the United States twice in less than one week, at least according to the Beltway media. Again, Walker was judged to have failed to meet the subjectively defined standards of conduct befitting a member of the opposition party when talking about President Obama. When the Wisconsin governor was inexplicably asked by The Washington Post whether or not he believed that Barack Obama was a Christian, Walker stepped on a landmine when he answered, “I don’t know.”
“I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that,” Walker said, his voice calm and firm. “I’ve never asked him that,” he added. “You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian?”
Now, let’s step back a minute. Those of you who didn’t succumb to the compulsion to wail and tear at your clothes over the mere suggestion that Barack Obama wasn’t Christian enough for Walker’s tastes might be predisposed to extend Walker the benefit of some doubt. The interpretation of these remarks that many in the journalistic community apparently share is that Walker was consciously trying to cast doubt on Obama’s faith and frame him as “the other” (and, no, I can’t believe we’re still having this debate after six years of the Obama presidency). It’s possible Walker was trying to be a bit cagey, as was Hillary Clinton when she told a political reporter in 2008 that Obama wasn’t a closet follower of the Islamic faith “as far as I know.” That is, however, the worst possible interpretation of Walker’s intentions. So few in the media entertained the idea that the governor might not have been indulging his inner Machiavelli and was perhaps honestly trying to avoid answering that question at all.
And good for him if he wasn’t. It’s a stupid question, and Walker called it as much in the second part of his answer that, unsurprisingly, is getting far less play in the press. “To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press,” Walker said. “The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”
He’s absolutely right. At a time when American combat forces are reportedly preparing to re-engage an enemy of nearly unfathomable horror in the Middle East, American diplomatic energy consistently fails to stop the bloodletting in Europe or prevent Iran from going nuclear, and when the Affordable Care Act consistently fails to perform as advertised, the compulsion that drives the media to enforce Republican reverence toward the president is quite sordid.
Conservatives who truly believe Obama is some sort of Manchurian candidate or a covert Muslim are deeply misguided, and not one single serious figure within the party espouses those views. Most of those who do were effectively sidelined long ago. They subsist today on the attentions of the political press and increasingly self-marginalized institutions like CPAC. To imply that Walker was subtly channeling that pathology in conservatives is for the press to again declare themselves code breakers who can efficiently sniff out “dog whistles” better than even their intended recipients.
And that’s just what many did:
For the love of God how is, "Do you think Obama is a Christian?" a gotcha question? It's about as far from that as I can imagine.
— Ben White (@morningmoneyben) February 22, 2015
Meanwhile, is Scott Walker trying to redefine the phrase "unforced error"? http://t.co/MACvfiCsRt
— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) February 21, 2015
“Why is it so damned difficult for someone to say that Obama is a Christian who loves America—and he also happens to have been a really bad president?” Matt Lewis asked in The Daily Beast. “Why not grant him this small concession? He’s never going to be on the ballot again, so why are Republicans still fighting the last war?”
Incidentally, “I really don’t know,” is precisely what Walker said to the tens of reporters who hounded him over the course of Giuliani-gate. It is telling that the Beltway reporting class reads Walker saying “I don’t know” and hears Col. Jessup issuing a sprawling confession after breaking down amid a withering cross-examination.
Moreover, and this will surprise the reporting class, but not all strict adherents to the Christian faith take your word for it if you claim to be a coreligionist. Those reporters who bristle at the notion that Obama’s devotion to what he has claimed are his faith-based convictions is suspect have conveniently forgotten that the president’s closest advisor admitted as much just weeks ago:
David Axelrod says Obama actively lied about his religious views as not to alienate black voters. Walker says “dunno” and it’s Armageddon.
— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) February 22, 2015
The worst part of all of this is that the political press does not seem to realize how completely they have let the veil slip in this agitated and perhaps unprecedented effort to protect Obama’s good name. The most deferential assessment of the media’s behavior over the last week would at least concede that they are preoccupied with frivolities. Nothing so energizes the media as the easy questions and the uncomplicated stories that provide them with opportunities to posture with presumed moral superiority. The worst one can say of the press over the course of this episode is that they remain committed to the success of the Obama presidency even while it flounders. That is an impulse that is growing increasingly frantic as the end of the Obama’s presidency nears and as his dubious legacy is repeatedly impugned by those who aspire to succeed him.