The midterm elections are less than a week old, and people are only just now beginning to comb through exit polling in order to discover the real cause of the Democrats’ rout. But if you take a quick look at the stories garnering the most attention today, you’ll see quite clearly that as far as the political media is concerned, last Tuesday is ancient history. The 2016 presidential election has unofficially begun.
There are multiple signs that the 2016 cycle is already spinning — a big New Yorker piece on Hillary Clinton’s unquestioned status as the Democratic Party front-runner, a never-too-early look at the GOP’s demographic challenges from the New York Times — but the most obvious is the torrent of articles on whether Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will run for president. This was bound to happen, given Walker’s star status within the GOP as well as his record passing hard-right bills in a usually Democratic state. And Walker is certainly encouraging it.
He’s unsubtly hinted before that he’d like to be the next GOP nominee, but in a Monday Op-Ed for Politico magazine the governor all but screams it. Framed as advice from one thrice-elected-in-a-blue-state GOPer to the new blood heading to D.C., the piece is really a kind of rough draft of the case Walker will soon be making for himself on the campaign trail. First, the generic history lesson about how bad things in Wisconsin were before he showed up: “We were a blue state in tough shape.” And next, the laundry list of statistics to prove things were getting better: Jobs created, employment rate lowered, government “streamlined,” yada-yada. Boilerplate.
Yet even if its interest in promoting the Walker brand is transparent, the Op-Ed still reflects why, in this benighted era of American democracy, he’ll probably be a formidable candidate. Because if Republicans are going to succeed in 2016, they’ll have to do so, at least in part, by following the script revealed last week by conservative message maven Frank Luntz. Namely, they’ll have to use dark money and voter suppression to push a system already designed to benefit the wealthy into overdrive, co-opt the public’s anti-plutocrat rage, win elections and then rig the game even more. And that’s a script Walker knows very well.
Most observers of Walker’s career know this already — especially those who read Alec MacGillis’ excellent profile of the governor from earlier this year — but for the heretofore blissfully ignorant, the Op-Ed includes some pristine examples. There’s its opening anecdote, in which Walker portrays himself as if he were the leader of an underdog social movement that had suddenly found itself, with disbelief, in the halls of power. “[W]e had to make changes worthy of voters’ faith in us,” Walker recalls telling his fellow GOPers after first winning the governorship. “[V]oters had made a dramatic shift,” he says he told them, “because they wanted a government that would do the same.”
Having established the hero of the story (himself), Walker then goes on to describe the villains (the unions and the Democrats, of course). “The Democrats and their union friends spent tens of millions of dollars trying to defeat me,” Walker writes, “but all of their advertising and special tricks couldn’t pull the wool over the eyes of Wisconsin voters.” Why not? Because they were “happy with what the GOP majority has done on their behalf.” And that’s the story as Walker sees it: Big money went up against good policy, and both in 2012 and 2014, policy won. Yes indeed, that’s Scott Walker; the real-life Mr. Smith.
It’s an appealing narrative, and it may even be proof of some pundits’ claims that the Republicans won last week in part by sounding progressive. What it definitely is, however, is a bunch of crap. Walker says he defeated massive campaign spending on Tuesday, just like he did in 2010. In truth, the exact opposite happened: Walker out-raised his Democratic challenger by as much as 2-to-1. According to Mother Jones, the recall saw at least $63.5 million spent overall by both sides. More than $30 million went to Walker, and two-thirds of it was from outsiders. The Democratic nominee, by contrast, raised a comparatively paltry $3.9 million, of which about 25 percent was from out-of-state. There's little doubt that the story told by the 2014 figures, when they all come in, will be much the same.
Spinning himself away from reality further still, Walker then describes the hard-right program he’s pushed through Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled Legislature as “full-scale” and based on “common-sense.” There’s no doubt that the Walker administration is responsible for major changes to Wisconsin’s economy and politics; but it’s a strange understanding of the term that characterizes a war of attrition with unions, the disenfranchisement of thousands of residents and a backdoor effort to destroy Roe v. Wade as “common sense.” Walker’s big ideas — lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations, approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, repealing the Affordable Care Act and turning Medicaid funding into no-strings-attached block grants sent to the states — may appeal to the right-wing 1 percent. But those people are anything but common, and rarely make much sense.
What increasingly goes without saying, though, is that Walker’s piece — and the many more like it sure to come from other would-be presidents — isn’t concerned with veracity or public policy. Rather, it’s best seen as the cover letter for his ongoing application to carry the banner in 2016 for the conservative 1 percent. The goal is to prove that he can win in a populist environment while also delivering for the religious right and the hyper-wealthy. He proved it in 2012 and 2014. He’ll soon have the chance to do it again.