Scott Walker seeks to deflate the GOP’s libertarian streak

One of the major takeaways from the Des Moines Register poll of the GOP primary electorate that found Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker surging ahead of the pack in the Hawkeye State is his apparent appeal to both the Republican Party’s conservative and moderate wings.

“A majority think he’s got the right balance between conservative and moderate,” said Ann Selzer, president of the respected firm that conducted this poll. “Caucus-goers deciding on the basis of a candidate’s values put him in second place, and he’s in first place with those who say electability is more important.”

It is a safe bet to assume that any candidate who can appeal to both of these elements of the GOP coalition is on track to win the party’s nomination. In the process of appealing to these groups, however, Walker is alienating the GOP’s rising libertarian wing.

On both the foreign affairs front and in regard to domestic policy, Walker is far from the ideal candidate to capture the support of younger voter who does not identify as Republican but is nevertheless increasingly suspicious of the government’s ability to effect positive change at home and abroad.

In an appearance on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Walker, buoyed by his performance in the latest DMR poll, adopted a hawkish position on ISIS that even many of the GOP’s stalwart interventionists are hesitant to adopt: A willingness to use American combat troops to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“I think we need to have an aggressive strategy anywhere around the world,” Walker said. “I think anywhere and everywhere, we have to go beyond just aggressive air strikes,” said Walker. “We have to look at other surgical methods. And ultimately we have to be prepared to put boots on the ground if that’s what it takes.”

“Boots on the ground in Syria? U.S. boots on the ground in Syria?”

“No, I don’t think that is an immediate plan, but I think anywhere in the world–”

“But you wouldn’t rule it out?”

“I wouldn’t rule anything out. I think when you have the lives of Americans at stake and our freedom loving allies anywhere in the world, we have to be prepared to do things that don’t allow those measures, those attacks, those abuses to come to our shores,” said Walker.

Not ruling “anything out” when it comes to combat troops in Iraq and Syria is expressly ruling that option in. America’s indigenous partners on the ground in Iraq are either too weak (the Iraqi Security Forces) or underequipped and ill-trained (the Kurdish Peshmerga) to be relied upon to liberate the massive, ethnically diverse portions of Iraq currently suffering under ISIS occupation.

In Syria, the “moderate rebels” who the administration would deploy against ISIS but would also decline to attack Bashar al-Assad’s forces do not exist. The vetting and training of relatively pro-Western rebel groups is a process that will stretch well into a prospective Walker presidency, and he has now signaled that he would likely abandon that convoluted course entirely.

The prospect of sending American troops back to Iraq and into an entirely new theater of operations in Syria will not only make Democrats in the United States nervous but will turn off the GOP’s ascendant libertarian faction.

On the domestic policy front, too, Walker has embraced some approaches that make those who are most concerned about government overreach apprehensive. Some on the right have come to suspect that Walker’s commitment to shrinking local government might not extend well beyond curtailing the power of public sector unions to influence policy.

In November, Walker backed a proposal to impose blanket drug testing on welfare beneficiaries in the Badger State – a proposal that sounded at the time to be almost certainly unconstitutional. Several court rulings have set the precedent that holds that “suspicionless” drug tests cannot be imposed on state residents merely because they intend to take advantage of existing government programs.

What’s more, as Reason’s Nick Gillespie observed, a program of mandatory drug testing is generally ineffective and a waste of tax dollars.

If a recent program in Missouri is any indication, Wisconsin will be collecting urine by the bucketful to catch very few bad actors (and that assumes smoking dope, say, should be a reason to pull somebody’s benefits). Last year, Missouri started testing suspected drug users (note: suspected, meaning there was at least some hypothetical reason to think a person was using drugs). The state ended up spending $500,000 to test 636 people, of which 20 were found to be using. So around 3 percent of suspects tested positive and each test cost around $786. Before courts ruled Florida’s drug-testing regime illegal, the Sunshine State spent $115,000 on piss tests and ended up coughing up $600,000 in reimbursements to applicants who had been denied benefits.

In Walker’s most recent State of the State address, he expanded on the details of his plan to drug test welfare recipients but failed, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, to outline how that program would be funded.

[T]he governor offered no details on how the state would cover the costs of that or the testing or whether he expected it to cost the state money overall, as a similar program did in Florida, or save tax dollars. The budget, he said in a statement, would also drop to four years from five the limit on how long a recipient could be in the Wisconsin Works, or W-2, program, the replacement in this state for traditional welfare.

Opponents like Shilling say that no state tests for drugs in the successor to the food stamps program known in Wisconsin as FoodShare. They say if implemented over potential federal objections, the proposal could cost Wisconsin employers a credit on their federal taxes as well as cause a loss in federal money for FoodShare.

Republicans who contend that Walker’s plan on this front is not designed to appeal to fiscal but social conservatives have a lot of ammunition available to them in order to support that claim. The only group of Republicans who can be expected to enthusiastically back this legally and financially dubious proposal are just the kind of Republicans who deliver caucus victories to GOP candidates in states like Iowa.

None of this is to say that Walker’s viability as a presidential candidate is in any way diminished. His formidability has been demonstrated in his three statewide victories in only four years, and in a purple state, no less. Many will agree with Walker’s policy preferences on both of these issues, but they do create a space for libertarian figure to oppose both him and the direction that he would take the party he seeks to lead. Enter Sen. Rand Paul…