The first instinct of many upon reading this headline will be to dismiss it. Presumably, “Republican powerbrokers” can be understood to mean Jeb Bush’s stable of handwringers for whom nothing is more frightening than an outspoken conservative who governs like one. But if we step back and suspend disbelief, it is not hard to see where Walker’s critics have a point.
First off, who are Walker’s critics? Well, outside of the political press and the nation’s editorial boards, which have determined that the Wisconsin governor is a “panderer of the first order” because the media is not the target of his pandering, Walker’s detractors are largely anonymous.
“There’s an emerging sense in the early states that Scott Walker is not ready for primetime,” Politico reported on Friday.
One open-ended question this week asked early-state insiders to pick which candidate of either party has made the biggest mistake this year. Scott Walker was the most common response.
Though a plurality of insiders still believe that the Wisconsin governor would win the Iowa caucuses if they were this week, several uncommitted Republicans marveled at what they described as rookie mistakes.
There’s a pervasive feeling that Walker erred by refusing to distance himself from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, after Giuliani said at an event Walker was also attending that President Barack Obama does not love America. He also wouldn’t say whether he believes Obama is a Christian.
Clear-eyed conservatives should perhaps take a critical look at Walker’s level of preparedness. Take, for example, the twin controversies involving Walker that dominated the news cycle last week.
Those in the media who continue to scold Walker for his refusal to vigorously denounce Rudy Giuliani after the former mayor had the temerity to call into question Barack Obama’s patriotism (formerly a time-honored practice when George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office) are not exposing a weakness in Walker so much as they are revealing their own biases. Walker called Giuliani’s comments “aggressive, and that should have satisfied reporters.
But Walker’s response to a silly question about Obama’s devotion to Christianity is a different story. Go back and re-read it. The Wisconsin governor’s response was rambling and improvised. While he eventually settled on a fine retort in which he called into question the political media’s sensibilities, he did open himself up to criticism by pontificating at length on the imperfect nature of truly knowing another human being. He was winging it until he found his footing. Walker said five sentences when one declarative statement would have served his purposes.
Without the conservative blogosphere to call out the media for its silly attachment to cornering Republicans with “gotcha” questions, would that controversy have taken a greater toll on the Wisconsin governor’s presidential stature? And just how many times are conservative bloggers expected to rush to the governor’s defense in the coming months? Surely, their time would be better spent on offense rather than defending their hapless 2016 nominee.
Walker is not entirely the victim of an overzealous reporting culture that is seeking to throttle the governor’s infant presidential campaign in its crib. A fair appraisal of the governor would concede that he has a tendencey to invite controversy. Scott Walker stumbled into what National Review’s Jim Geraghty called a “genuine unforced error” at CPAC on Thursday when he insisted that his national security bona fides were established when he successfully faced down the Badger State’s progressive protesters.
“If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe,” Walker said of ISIS.
“That is a terrible response,” Geraghty wrote.
First, taking on a bunch of protesters is not comparably difficult to taking on a Caliphate with sympathizers and terrorists around the globe, and saying so suggests Walker doesn’t quite understand the complexity of the challenge from ISIS and its allied groups.
Secondly, it is insulting to the protesters, a group I take no pleasure in defending. The protesters in Wisconsin, so furiously angry over Walker’s reforms and disruptive to the procedures of passing laws, earned plenty of legitimate criticism. But they’re not ISIS. They’re not beheading innocent people. They’re Americans, and as much as we may find their ideas, worldview, and perspective spectacularly wrongheaded, they don’t deserve to be compared to murderous terrorists.
That’s fair. If a Democratic officeholder had compared the tea party protesters to ISIS terrorists, Republicans would be consumed with righteous indignation. It’s only honest to acknowledge that liberals have a justifiable claim to feel slighted.
More importantly, as Geraghty said, this does not convey confidence that Walker either is prepared to serve as commander-in-chief or understands the nature of the threat posed by ISIS. Some conservatives, like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Daily Caller columnist Matt Lewis, have cited Ronald Reagan’s mass firing of the nation’s striking air traffic controllers as an example of how a president’s approach to domestic affairs can reshape the geopolitical landscape. The Soviets were taken aback by Reagan’s fearlessness in putting down by air traffic controller’s strike in 1981, but the Islamic State is not the Soviet Union. The Kremlin wanted nothing more than to avoid direct conflict with Washington and recalibrated their approach to foreign affairs accordingly in response to Reagan’s forcefulness. By contrast, ISIS is most desirous of drawing America into a fight inside the nascent caliphate. They want confrontation, preferably the direct kind, and they would likely welcome a more pugnacious president.
With all this having been said, Scott Walker remains an impressive candidate. He has proven he can talk over the heads of the media, he is thoroughly vetted, and he unites two increasingly fractious wings of the Republican Party. Commanders-in-chief are made, not born, and Walker has plenty of time to reframe his message on foreign policy.
Those who are casting a sideways glance at Walker today are, however, legitimately concerned about his readiness, and it behooves the conservative movement to seriously consider whether those apprehensions are well-founded.