It was 1976, and having finished graduate school in Washington, D.C., I moved to cover politics for a South Dakota newspaper.
That job, at the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, brought me face to face with Jimmy Carter, then the governor of Georgia. Carter eventually won South Dakota’s Democratic presidential primary on his way to winning the White House that fall.
In person, Jimmy and Rosalynn, who campaigned with her husband, struck me as similar personalities: smart, caring and utterly unpretentious.
This plainspoken peanut farmer, I recall thinking, could hardly be more different from Richard Nixon. I had spent my time in Washington mesmerized by the Watergate scandal, so thoroughly that I could recite Watergate names and roles like the lineup of my favorite sports team.
As you know, it was reported recently that the 90-year-old ex-president’s cancer has spread to his brain. As he approaches his final days, those closest to him are lamenting how his presidency is caricatured as a failure. Stuart Eizenstat, his chief domestic policy adviser, eloquently describes Carter’s “unheralded legacy” in the New York Times last week.
Eizenstat acknowledged that “President Ronald Reagan’s positive, hopeful approach … contrasted with Mr. Carter’s penchant to be the bearer of unpleasant truths, to ask for sacrifice in a way that shaded into the image of a public scold.”
By 1980, most American voters had moved beyond Watergate and did not appreciate shades of gray or being lectured about limits, about conserving energy, or, for that matter, about making any sacrifice at all.
So the political pendulum swung and swung hard. Reagan’s jovial, detail-free optimism was widely popular.
And like Reagan, Donald Trump is also detail free, though his bravado is suited to the coarsened culture of 2015. Yes, Trump’s appeal is primarily to an angry, aging, white Republican base, but that is who matters during primary season.
Analysts attribute much of Trump’s remarkable resilience to a GOP base yearning for a confident, uncompromising leader who can make us believe — contrary to most geopolitical indicators — that he can restore us as the pre-eminent superpower we were after World War II.
As David Axelrod, the political consultant who helped mastermind Barack Obama’s two presidential victories, said in a recent New York Times interview, “Trump is the proverbial strongman.”
“There’s no one more opposite to Obama. (George W.) Bush had been impulsive and reckless, so voters wanted someone who was thoughtful and deliberative. Now they’ve had enough of gray and they want to go back to black and white, and that’s Trump. He knows nothing else.”
So day after day, week after week, Trump defies traditional rules of politics in offering incendiary comments that burn potential bridges to women and minorities for the GOP. Trump’s rhetoric seems to especially thrill those angry white men who yearn for the days when women and minorities knew their places, which was behind them.
Quite simply, Trump has lifted the entire Republican playing field and moved it far, far to the right, which is good news for progressives looking to court centrist voters in a large-turnout general election.
But it is bad news — stunningly bad — for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Day after day, our Republican governor comes off as increasingly cartoonish in the national media, a small figure waving his arms behind Trump, seeming to shout “Me too! Me too!”
Walker, you see, has apparently convinced himself he represents a one-man profile in courage for eviscerating union rights in Wisconsin, even though he was carried by millionaire and billionaire donors and strategists, a Republican-controlled Legislature, a compliant and politicized state Supreme Court and an off-balance and underperforming state Democratic Party.
This self-aggrandizement showed itself in his autobiography, “Unintimidated,” in which he described his lifelong admiration of Reagan and famously asserted that the president’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers somehow intimidated the Soviet Union and hastened its demise.
That sort of preposterous claim foreshadowed other bizarre assertions by Walker, such as that facing down angry schoolteachers somehow equips him to defeat Islamic State terrorists. (That nugget was so daffy that it keeps getting recycled, cut-and-paste style, whenever national reporters summarize Walker’s many odd worldviews.)
His recent pattern is to take an outlandishly extreme position — for example, denying citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants —only to qualify that position, and, on this topic, qualify it again. Read a headline in New York Magazine: “Scott Walker clarifies his third position on birthright citizenship.”
Timothy Egan of the New York Times nicely summed up Walker’s would-be machismo: “Scott Walker, the governor whose foreign policy experience is limited to breakfast at the old International House of Pancakes, threatens to start at least two wars upon taking office. He promises to use military action if necessary to coax Iran into doing what he wants it to do. He also wants to pick a fight with Russia, sending weapons to Ukraine and erecting a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.”
Then last week, Walker called on President Obama to show “backbone” in dealing with China, a trait Walker seems to value far more than reason.
Beyond mega-hawkish pronouncements, Walker’s other gambit has been to point out that he, like Trump, is not a Washington politician, ignoring the fact that his resume makes him probably the quintessential career politician in the field.
Walker’s free fall is certainly not all Trump’s doing. Walker’s performance at the Cleveland debate had journalists scrambling for a thesaurus to find variations on “dull,” “bland” and “boring.”
For Walker, the hard truth is not only that he lacks the gravitas to back up his preferred tone of bravado, but also that he seems to lack the, um, intellectual agility needed to hold up under a presidential spotlight.
In mid-July, I interviewed Axelrod to preview his appearance for a charity fundraiser in Madison and asked him about Walker. His words then sound prescient: “Presidential politics is like pole-vaulting,” he said. “Each time you clear a bar, it gets raised. The scrutiny becomes more intense as you go on. The glib answers you can get by with early don’t work later. Your record is evaluated by a much harsher standard. We’ll see how he fares.”
Axelrod spoke a bit more colorfully at the Orpheum Theater fundraiser in describing the vulnerability of an underqualified politician seeking higher office: “The higher a monkey climbs a pole, the more you can see his ass.”
It is still early, but we’re seeing plenty.