In July, a Politico story headlined “Tales from Scott Walker’s graveyard” breathlessly suggested that Walker’s vanquished political foes “grudgingly respect him as a rare and exceptionally canny politician who’s constantly underestimated and always outperforms expectations.”
Politico called the Wisconsin governor and presidential wannabe a “sneaky-smart campaigner” and a “polished and level-headed tactician, a master at reading crowds.”
Just 10 weeks later, Walker’s campaign became an asterisk.
A day after that, it became history.
In suspending his campaign at the Edgewater hotel Monday evening, it took only eight words for him to invoke his hero Ronald Reagan’s name in brief, self-serving, God-invoking remarks.
Walker took no questions but lashed out at current Republican front-runner Donald Trump, though not by name. He cast Trump as a toxic, anti-Reagan force other candidates should endeavor to foil by withdrawing to clear the field for some unnamed consensus conservative, who, like Walker, exudes Reagan’s optimism. (Worth noting: this was hardly a concession by Walker, as his support had fallen to, well, zero.)
Just the day before, he had fallen to asterisk status, getting less than one-half of 1 percent support in a CNN national poll. Seen as the early front-runner to win the Iowa GOP caucus voting, Walker’s failure was unparalleled by any candidate in either party. While ex-Texas Gov. Rick Perry left first, he was a non-factor in early polling. In fact, the quickness of Walker’s descent and exit probably exceeds the hopes of even ardent, Walker-loathing progressives in Wisconsin.
For a fellow who takes great pride in going big and bold and standing up to 100,000 constituents in union protests, the reality of Walker’s campaign-trail irrelevance must have been humiliating.
Consider this account from Bloomberg Politics describing an event after the latest CNN poll: “The signs of his precipitous fall were all too vivid Sunday afternoon inside Serena’s Coffee Café in Amana, Iowa, where about 40 stoic supporters showed up for his first retail campaign event in the state since Wednesday’s debate.
“Gone were most of the network television cameras that had followed Walker much of the summer. Just one network was on hand, along with one reporter-photographer from a nearby station in Cedar Rapids. A second event at a Pizza Ranch in Vinton, Iowa, brought out another small crowd, along with one local TV camera.”
Much has been written about how the GOP mood in 2015 is for an outsider: Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina. Much of what the trio says (particularly Trump) is demonstrably untrue or outrageous and they are short on coherent prescriptions, but the Republican base is hopping mad after seven years of relative peace, prosperity and social progress under an intellectual president of color. (Walker, in one of many failed tactical forays, tried to argue in vain that he too was a political outsider even though he has appeared on ballots 14 times since 1990.)
During the summer, I was among those who suggested that the Trump phenomenon seemed to especially undercut Walker by sucking oxygen from Walker’s messaging.
But after watching Walker in two debates, where he seemed to become smaller as minutes passed, I take that back. Walker is the sole author of this epic collapse. It was neither his opponents nor the media.
Walker’s charisma-free everyman personality, the one his backers said made him seem resolute and imperturbable within Wisconsin’s borders, was a colossal flop on the national stage.
In Wisconsin, of course, Walker had the good fortune of timing, to have withdrawn from the 2006 race for governor and emerged as the strongest candidate in a Republican pendulum election in 2010. State Democrats underestimated the economic suffering of outstate voters and failed to offer an alternative vision that was coherent, convincing and not simply anti-Walker.
But, on the national stage, Walker was destined to fail with or without Trump jabbing him about Walker’s record on budget deficits and jobs in Wisconsin.
At this juncture, we should regard the governor as a disciplined career politician with a limited grasp of and ability to talk about complex national and international public policy issues.
I, for one, am through nodding, my chin cupped in the palm of my hand, when some expert sagely tells me that Walker is not to be underestimated.
David Axelrod, the noted author and former Obama adviser, now seems even more prescient then he was this summer when I interviewed him for my column and spoke with him at an epilepsy research fundraiser. He used more than one metaphor, both about the heights of a presidential campaign, suggesting that Walker would struggle under the intense scrutiny Axelrod had experienced through two Obama campaigns. Perhaps the only surprise for Axelrod, who is a political analyst on CNN these days, is how quickly he was proven correct.
Looking back, Walker lacked two critical attributes I think are essential to any credible presidential candidate. The absence of either should be fatal to any campaign.
First, Walker had no guiding strategy for why he wanted to be president, no cohesive vision for where he aspired to take the country. Instead, he haplessly careened from one to another misguided tactic du jour and boasted of wanting to “wreak havoc” in Washington, D.C.
He tried in his self-serving exit comments at the Edgewater to portray himself as a victim and a disciple of Reagan-like optimism. But during the campaign, he mostly talked about what he would remove – health insurance, labor rights, reproductive rights, immigration rights – rather than what he would add. In Walker’s world, “big labor bosses” seemed to be the answer no matter what the question was, including when asked about standing up to terrorists.
Walker provided scores of targets for ridicule about his campaign tactics, including taking three positions in one week on citizenship for the children of immigrants and ducking a question on what he would do about the Syrian refugee crisis: “I’m not president today, and I can’t be president today,” he said. “Everybody wants to talk about hypotheticals; there is no such thing as a hypothetical.” Funny, most of us learned in school that debating current public policy is the essence of campaigns.
Still, for pure hypocrisy, this one takes the cake: Criticizing Trump for not correcting an attendee at a New Hampshire campaign rally when the guy said Obama is not a U.S. citizen and is a Muslim. Trump did not rebuke the comment nor apologize later.
Walker, likely still sputtering after being dressed down by Trump at the CNN debate, was asked about it Sunday. “I don’t think that’s accurate and I don’t think that’s helpful for the discussion going forward,” Walker said, claiming he would have told the man he disagreed with him.
That sounds high-minded, but days earlier, Walker seemed to blame our first black president for the deaths of police officers in a slander that carried unmistakable racial undertones.
In a column on Hot Air, a right-wing website, Walker called Obama the “divider-in-chief” under whom “we’ve seen racial tensions worsen and a tendency to use law enforcement as a scapegoat.
“We need to change the tone in America from chants and rallies that fixate on racial division and instead follow the example of the families of the victims of the Charleston shooting, who showed us the best path forward is through unity,” Walker wrote. (Charleston, of course, was where nine black people were killed, including the pastor, inside a church, allegedly by a white supremacist.)
The Economist, no hotbed of progressive thought, points out that allegations in this vein “ – of culpable silence or a ‘war on police’ – would be grave if they were not demonstrably false,” adding that the rate of police deaths in the U.S. has been declining since the 1970s.
“What, then, explains the fury of Mr. Obama’s critics?” asks the magazine. “Prejudice is too sweeping an answer,” it continues. Perhaps it is, but alleging that the president is an anti-white racist was Walker’s tactical choice, one we should remember. Perhaps it garnered limited national media attention because his campaign was already in steep descent and perceived, correctly, as irrelevant.
The second, and even bigger problem for Walker, is that he apparently lacks the intelligence to frame extemporaneous and coherent answers, especially during two woeful debate performances.
In CNN’s marathon debate last week, Walker’s signature moment was when he invoked Trump’s reality television show, “The Apprentice,” likening the real estate magnate to an apprentice, just like Walker said President Obama has been for two terms. His stale quip mostly drew eye rolls from analysts, yet Walker beamed.
His desperate performance through the summer has not gone unnoticed back home. Not only has his job approval rating fallen to an all-time low of 39 percent in the most recent Marquette University Law School poll, with 57 percent disapproving, but when asked if Walker “cares about people like you,” he fell from a high of nearly 50 percent in 2012, to 46 percent last fall, to 37 percent his summer.
Maybe it took the spotlight of a presidential campaign to get moderate Republicans and centrists to realize that, mostly, Walker cares about himself, not the hopes of Wisconsin constituents.
Toward the end of his campaign, one got the impression that his GOP opponents decided, without consultation but in unison, to treat Walker with the ultimate sign of disrespect – they ignored him. Only Trump, when directly provoked by Walker, bothered recently to criticize Walker’s record of leadership in Wisconsin.
The others on the debate stage simply looked away in a dismissive, “Oh, you’re still here?” sort of manner.
Well, now he’s not.
Walker famously prides himself on being unintimidated; it is the title of his autobiography. But this week proved that his GOP foes, all of them, were the ones who were truly unintimidated … by candidate Scott Walker.