On the very day that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s scandals became big national news, Politico’s Mike Allen is out with his Playbook Snapshot 2016 – the top 16 Republicans most mentioned in Beltway chatter – and Walker is at the top of the list (along with erratic Tea Party Sen. Rand Paul). It’s a perfect example of how and why Walker has persisted as a top presidential contender: the national media knows little and cares less about Wisconsin politics.
Walker is an interesting contrast with embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Poor Christie. Live by the media, die by the media. There’s no question that the national media made Christie, though he gave them plenty to work with. He is an outsize personality, and the fact that he’s the governor of New Jersey and used to be a federal prosecutor working in the world’s major media market played a huge role in his rise as a national figure. Now, though, the attention of the national media is (however belatedly) focused obsessively on Christie’s troubles, and every new subpoena, every wronged mayor, and every unsavory crony tied to the George Washington Bridge scandal is a major story.
Scott Walker, by contrast, has actually managed to benefit from his distance from the national media. Sure, it kept him only in the second tier of potential 2016 candidates – but tough media scrutiny would have excluded him from any tier. No one has ever explained how a governor can have six associates convicted of illegal campaign activities – including three “top aides who sat just feet from his desk,” in the words of the Wisconsin State Journal -- and come away from it entirely unsullied. At minimum it raises questions of management and judgment.
But even leaving aside the two John Doe investigations that have ensnared his office, Walker has never been ready for national prime time. He’s a charisma-free divider who got big attention for ending collective bargaining for public employees and then surviving a union-led recall election. All of that made him a hero on the right, of course, but Walker was never going to survive close inspection. He’s given to dim-bulb platitudes, like defending a state law requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion by saying blithely, “I don’t have any problem with ultrasound. I think most people think ultrasounds are just fine.” As though the procedure involved looking at kidney stones, not invading a woman’s privacy. In a cycle when Republicans are supposed to be trying to solve their problems with women, that’s not all. Walker signed a bill repealing Wisconsin’s equal pay for women law and has crusaded against Planned Parenthood.
Personally, I thought Walker was toast when he got pranked by someone pretending to be David Koch, and he yukked it up about how “stereotypical blue-collar workers” supported his attacks on unions, but I was wrong about that. No one really cared.
I firmly believe that if the global media establishment was based in Milwaukee, the idea that Walker had the political talent to become a top tier presidential candidate would never have taken hold. Even Mike Allen would know better.
Well, the treasure rove of 27,000 emails related to the first John Doe investigation of Walker’s office – which led to the criminal conviction of six Walker staffers, including three top aides – is forcing national reporters to pay attention. In the last 24 hours we’ve learned that Walker staff set up a secret email system, complete with a separate router, where public workers could plot strategy with campaign staffers – and Walker regularly participated in the email round-robin.
"Consider yourself now in the 'inner circle,'" administration director Cynthia Archer wrote to Walker deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch (who was convicted in the first John Doe probe) after they exchanged a message to test the system. "I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW [Walker] and [Walker chief of staff Tom] Nardelli,” Archer confided. “You should be sure you check it throughout the day," she wrote. Walker defenders say the governor didn’t know about the secret email system though he participated.
The newly released email also featured staffers forwarding racist jokes, making light of the death of a mental hospital patient because “no one cares about crazy people,” and recording Walker’s personal decision to fire a public health doctor because she had once modeled thongs. The emails show Walker ran a daily conference call that mixed his public and his campaign staff “so we can better coordinate sound, timely responses, so we all know what the others are doing,” according to Nardelli. Although the first John Doe investigation ended in convictions for six associates but no charges against Walker, a second probe, into whether his recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside right-wing backers, is ongoing.
Now, some in Wisconsin say even the new revelations won't doom his reelection, though it certainly makes it more of a fight. But Mike Allen notwithstanding, it seriously damages the boomlet that has made him the potential establishment “front-runner.” To benefit from Christie's stumble, and become the big donors' new savior, Walker had to be squeaky clean, in contrast with the investigation-tarnished Christie. With his own ethical troubles now growing, and renewed attention on the scandal he survived, Walker is almost as bad an investment for donors as Christie.
As I’ve written before, that “deep bench” of Republican 2016 contenders has completely splintered. Walker was a second string candidate who was on the verge of becoming a contender only because of the troubles of Christie, toxic Ted Cruz, Florida’s Marco Rubio, Louisiana’s deeply unpopular Gov. Bobby Jindal and disgraced former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
But hey, there are always folks ready to step up. Allen’s Playbook 2016 list features South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as “rising.” If only.