Scott Walker represented the best chance to nominate a movement conservative for president since Reagan. The Republican establishment’s power peaked under George W. Bush, whose strong support from fellow evangelicals effectively prevented a serious challenger to his right. Buckley described Bush 43 as “conservative but not a conservative.”

Walker is a conservative. He’s a Reagan-quoting, union-fighting, tax-and-budget-cutting, right-to-work-supporting product of the Goldwater-Reagan GOP, not the party Jeb and George W. Bush’s father hailed from. He also had something no other conservative running for the GOP presidential nomination had: a resume as a two-term governor of a state that was far from monolithically Republican…

Conservatives have generally lost the Republican presidential nomination not just because of the establishment’s financial and organizational strength, but also because the conservative vote has tended to fragment. There was a split between Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson, among others, in 1988, between Pat Buchanan and Phil Gramm and Co. in 1996, between Romney, Thompson, and Huckabee in 2008, and eventually between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in 2012. And in every case, the conservative candidate who did the best with voters wasn’t the one with the money and organization to compete the best against the establishment…

While Rubio, Cruz, Paul, Carson, and Carly Fiorina remain, post-Walker movement conservatives now find themselves contemplating the nomination of a candidate — Trump or Bush — who isn’t one of them. There’s still time, but this wasn’t where the right expected to be back when Walker was still rising. It is, however, where we tend to find ourselves every four years.

***

How does that happen? How does a politician make such a strong impression out of the gate, then disenchant virtually every person who once told a pollster he should be the next president? Walker didn’t make one giant, disqualifying gaffe. Instead, he made a series of small mistakes—tactical, strategic, rhetorical, and ideological—that added up to an unavoidable conclusion: No matter what, he would not be the nominee

But Walker’s unexpected early success was whatever you call the opposite of a blessing in disguise—a curse in disguise, perhaps. It made him overconfident, removing the incentive to put his head down, study policy, and work for votes, while training a harsh spotlight on his every utterance. Those utterances frequently made audiences and the media do double takes, as when he refused to say whether he considered President Obama a Christian, or when he claimed to be ready to take on the Islamic State because he’d taken on the unions. As the Washington Examiner’s Byron York wrote on Monday: “There had always been talk that Walker, as a Midwestern governor, wasn’t well versed, or even very versed at all, in foreign policy. That turned out to be true.”

As a strategic matter, Walker may have chosen the wrong lane, or segment of the electorate. Correctly sensing conservatives’ desire for anti-establishment candidates, he tacked hard to the right, renouncing his previously moderate positions on immigration and emphasizing his social conservatism. In his blue state, Walker was used to being the most conservative guy in the room. But on the national stage, in a party tilting ever rightward, there was always someone willing to go farther, and many conservatives suspected him of posturing. When Donald Trump’s candidacy began to take off, Walker’s support in Iowa quickly evaporated. In the words of the Republican consultant Liz Mair, who had worked for Walker’s Wisconsin campaigns but was fired from his presidential effort for a handful of impolitic tweets, Walker failed because he became “so invested in winning, no matter what it took, that he lost sight of his real identity as a political leader.”

***

After a promising start last winter, the two-term Wisconsin governor turned out to be a tentative and mistake-prone candidate who badly fumbled core Republican issues — especially birthright citizenship — that Trump and other top GOP candidates handled with relative ease…

“The impression I had,” said one veteran GOP operative, “was that Scott was making it up as he went along.”…

“It makes me scratch my head; the only thing I can attribute Walker’s failure to is that people do not want someone tainted by any relation to government at all,” she added. “They are so fed up they don’t trust anybody. He said he was an outsider, but he also had that taint of working in government.”…

“He was a terrible candidate, but he also got Trump-ed,” said one Walker ally.

***

In today’s GOP, it’s bet­ter to be a tough-talk­ing out­sider than an ac­com­plished con­ser­vat­ive in­sider. Walk­er’s cam­paign theme poin­ted to his re­cord as a gov­ernor who fights the lib­er­al es­tab­lish­ment—and wins. But on the cam­paign trail, his mild-mannered per­son­al­ity didn’t match the mood of an angry GOP elect­or­ate. He nev­er was a par­tic­u­larly cha­ris­mat­ic politi­cian; even when he chal­lenged lib­er­al act­iv­ists in Wis­con­sin, he seemed preter­nat­ur­ally se­rene. His at­tempt to chal­lenge a heck­ler at the Iowa State Fair by say­ing, “I won’t be in­tim­id­ated!” was a be­lated at­tempt to show his tough­ness, in­stead of telling tales of his lead­er­ship in Wis­con­sin. The tough-talk­ing rhet­or­ic of Don­ald Trump and the in-your-face act­iv­ism of Hucka­bee res­on­ates more with con­ser­vat­ives who are look­ing for a street fight­er to take on Pres­id­ent Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton.

At the same time, con­ser­vat­ive voters are more in­ter­ested in total polit­ic­al out­siders who nev­er served in elect­ive of­fice than politi­cians who worked from with­in the sys­tem. It’s why Fior­ina, whose re­sume is as es­tab­lish­ment as any politi­cian’s, can take off simply be­cause she nev­er won a polit­ic­al race. Walk­er, for all his suc­cesses, has es­sen­tially been a polit­ic­al lifer since col­lege. (He didn’t even gradu­ate in or­der to pur­sue his polit­ic­al in­terests.) As with four-term Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Walk­er found out that ex­per­i­ence is more of a bur­den these days than an as­set.

***

There’s no middle lane in the Republican primaries. When he was at the top of the polls, Walker was doing well among both conservative and moderate Republicans. This was taken to be a sign of strength, but it was actually a weakness: It meant that he was likely to disappoint one or more of the groups who thought they liked him.

In an article two weeks ago about what had already been a pronounced decline for Walker, my National Review colleagues Rich Lowry and Eliana Johnson suggested that he had tried and failed “to straddle the grassroots and the establishment.” Another way of putting it: He wanted to appeal both to those Republicans who place a high priority on executive experience and political realism, and to those who value ideological purity and combativeness above all. But instead of combining these two groups, he got neither. He wasn’t pure enough for the purists, and his attempts to ingratiate himself with them — repositioning himself on social issues and immigration in particular — made him look unsteady to the realists. It didn’t help that Walker and his aides told reporters the political calculation behind every move he made.

***

In a perfect world, Walker would have had time to get up to speed on national issues, and to demonstrate his capacity for creative problem-solving. It is often said that governors have an advantage over lawmakers in running for president, as they gain executive experience in the course of doing their jobs. That is certainly true. Yet it is also true that the determined opposition of organized labor ensured that Walker’s tenure as governor left him with little time to breathe, let alone contemplate his position on this or that national controversy. That hurt him. We’ve spent the last few weeks in the Trump vs. Carson phase of the presidential race. It seems that we are entering the Fiorina vs. Rubio phase, when conservatives are thinking harder about which candidate is best positioned to change the direction of the country for the better. And in this next phase of the campaign, substantive questions around economic and foreign policy will become more central.

Could it be that Walker decided that he wasn’t ready for the presidency? There is no doubt in my mind that Walker is an intelligent man who would have eventually devised a plausible foreign policy agenda. In the first weeks and months of his presidential campaign, alas, there was no real evidence of serious thinking on his part on how a Republican president might improve America’s standing in the world, combat Islamist extremism, or address the challenges posed by a China that is both more powerful than in years past and more vulnerable to outright economic collapse.

***

Some supporters saw Walker’s lack of foreign policy chops as a fixable problem. Indeed, he tried to fix it, gathering a group of experts to school him in international affairs. But for Walker, an even bigger problem was domestic policy. He just wasn’t very up on some of the key policy and political issues that a president has to confront.

About a month after his Iowa breakthrough, Walker traveled to Palm Beach, Florida to address a donor-heavy crowd at a gathering sponsored by the conservative Club for Growth. He was asked his thoughts about the Export-Import Bank — not a huge issue, but an important one to many fiscal conservatives — and he didn’t seem to have any. Walker was also asked about the standoff then going on in Congress over funding the Department of Homeland Security. His answer was long, meandering, and entirely unclear. He was asked about President Obama’s executive action on immigration. Same story…

The hard lesson for Walker is that campaigns expose a candidate’s weaknesses and gaps in knowledge. While it is possible for candidates to improve as performers — they do it all the time — it is really hard for them to learn much new during the campaign. The action is simply too frantic, too non-stop for a candidate to really delve into anything.

***

I think part of the reason is that Walker never went through with actually calling for reduced legal immigration. If you’re going to pander, follow through. But he merely hinted, repeating a formula he unveiled in April: “a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages.” In that same interview with Glenn Beck he dropped Senator Sessions’s name, reinforcing the impression that he agreed with the nation’s leading critic of mass legal immigration…

My own sense was that Walker and his staff figured that hinting at immigration skepticism would be enough to endear him to the hawks, while avoiding anything concrete that might scare the donors. Sure, he knew nothing about immigration policy, but his ambiguity on legal immigration was a strategic decision. And Trump stomped all over that strategy when he published his concrete immigration policy blueprint.

Walker could have taken full ownership of the immigration issue before Trump even entered the race, limiting the reality-show star’s apeal. But hints and winks weren’t going to cut it.

***

But for all the inevitable second-guessing about Walker’s campaign — and to their credit, some observers including Alec MacGillis have been questioning Walker’s political acumen to begin with — it’s also possible that he got unlucky in some senses. Walker was mediocre in the debates, but he had fewer than 14 minutes in both debates combined to speak to voters: the least for any candidate on the main stage for both events.

And while Walker had some missteps on the campaign trail — such as implying that the U.S. should consider building a border wall with Canada — they don’t seem to be much worse than the gaffes other candidates have committed.

But Walker was caught in something of the same vicious cycle as Hillary Clinton. There were some genuine but not obviously mission-critical problems with his campaign; there were some poor polling numbers; and there was increasingly negative media coverage. All of these tended to feed back upon and accentuate one another, making his situation worse. Unlike Clinton, however, who (probably) has the resources to pull herself out of the spiral — and who benefits from the lack of competition on the Democratic side — Walker won’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

***

This is September 2015. The Iowa caucuses will be held on Feb. 1, 2016. Anything could happen by then.

Rick Santorum managed to win Iowa in 2012 with a total campaign budget that was probably less than what the Walker campaign spends on toner. Bobby Jindal’s poll numbers are hovering around the margin of error, and he’s still around…

This is a lesson about politics, especially at the highest level. Sometimes, the top prize only goes to those who never give up, who have an all-commanding faith in themselves. At this point in the 1992 cycle, Bill Clinton was stuck in the single digits, with a couple sex scandals on top of having no money. And he was running to be president in an election in which nobody thought the Democrats had a chance anyway…

There’s no reason Scott Walker couldn’t have been one of those politicians.

***

But some of the Wisconsin governor’s loyalists are already talking up the possibility that if chaos continues to reign in the race, Walker could come back and win the Republican nomination from the convention floor next summer.

Two Republican strategists with ties to Wisconsin told BuzzFeed News that Walker’s allies have been floating the prospect in political circles. And a fundraiser for Walker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while he doesn’t know if the governor himself is behind the buzz, “with this campaign season, nothing would surprise me.”…

Still, there is skepticism in Republican circles that Walker would be the consensus candidate to emerge victorious from a floor fight. One GOP source called it “crazy.”

And one of the strategists with ties to Wisconsin said, “The problem is that if you had a brokered convention scenario, [Walker] wouldn’t even be the most likely person out of Wisconsin to win the nomination. That would be Paul Ryan.”

***

There is zero doubt that if Trump had never entered this race that Walker is not only still in it, he’s almost certainly still the frontrunner in Iowa. I say this not because all of Walker’s support went to Trump, but rather due to how Trump, along with a huge assist from an all-too-willing news media, totally altered the fundamental dynamics of the contest, almost overnight…

In short, Walker, who was already on the boring side, was made to look extremely dull in comparison to Trump who was being allowed to play by his own set of rules (which I’m not yet convinced even include him getting elected president as his ultimate goal). Sadly, we are now living in a country where, even when it comes to picking our leader, entertainment value is seemingly all that matters, even to Republicans.

There is a lot of responsibility to go around for this series of events, but mostly I blame (surprise!) the media and specifically the conservative media. I say this not just because of their silly and transparently ratings-driven Trump mania, but also due to the fact that they have, for many years now, grossly mis-educated their audience about the political realities of modern America…

[C]onservatives will have to live with an astounding reality. Thanks to them being duped by their own people, the person who was best suited to beat Hillary was forced out of the race long before a vote was cast because of a liberal reality TV star who is friends with Hillary and who had a consultation with her husband Bill just before he announced he was running.