Scott Walker's lack of a college degree: A non-issue that Democrats should avoid

There are plenty of things to criticize Scott Walker over. His lack of a college degree is not one of them

Published February 16, 2015 6:30PM (EST)

Scott Walker                               (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Scott Walker (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has emerged as a modest front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in the past couple of weeks. This may well be a temporary state of affairs. If the 2012 GOP primaries taught us anything about the presidential nominating process in the super PAC era, it's that every candidate will be the front-runner for a few weeks. At some point this year, everyone from Huckles to Doctor-Citizen Ben Carson will serve a brief spell as the Man to Beat. No one has even launched a campaign yet, and already this year Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush have taken their turns.

Scott Walker's numbers may oscillate over the course of the next year, but there's reason to believe he's the real deal. Notwithstanding the concern that he has the charisma of a nightstand, he's an excellent candidate on paper: accomplished in enacting conservative goals and withstanding the challenges that those efforts sparked, and able to unify the social, economic and foreign policy factions of the party.

As soon as Walker's ascendance in the early power rankings began, I've been expecting, though certainly not hoping, to see a particular line of attack against him bubble up. A very predictable one that makes me groan because it's so wrongheaded. So I'd like to thank former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- of course it's Dean! -- for being the first prominent chump, that I've noticed, at least, to run with it and give me this opportunity to swat it down. From Thursday's "Morning Joe," regarding Scott Walker's "punt" on the theory of evolution:

Howard Dean: This is a particular problem for Scott Walker which has not been an issue yet, but it will. Scott Walker, were he to become president, would be the first president in many generations who did not have a college degree. So the issue here is not just the issue of dancing around the question of evolution for political reasons, the issue is, how well educated is this guy?

Joe Scarborough: Are you serious?

HD: I’m absolutely serious.

JS: Are you serious?

Donny Deutsch: He didn’t finish his senior year so he didn’t get all the stuff.

JS: Because he didn’t get his degree?

HD: I think a lot of people are going to be worried about this.

JS: Do you worry about people who don’t finish college?

HD: I worry about people not knowing much about the world and not knowing much about science.

JS: Let’s name the people who didn’t finish college and who have changed this world. Did Bill Gates finish college?

HD: Bill Gates is a little different. Nobody is accusing Scott Walker of having the intellect of Bill Gates.

JS: Well nobody is accusing Scott Walker of being dumb because he didn’t finish college except you.

HD: I didn’t say dumb. I said unknowledgeable. [...]

Willie Geist: And how do you know he’s unknowledgeable? He’s knowledgeable about what goes on in his state.

JS: And what the hell does that have to do with him answering the question the way he did, or were you just taking a cheap shot?

HD: Because evolution is a widely accepted scientific construct, and people who don’t believe in evolution either do it for hard right religious reasons or because they don’t know anything.

Take heed, everyone else who's considering levying this criticism at Scott Walker, of how quickly Howard Dean is sent on the defensive, looking like a snooty liberal snob jerk. And that's after only the most modest pushback from the likes of Joe Scarborough and Willie Geist.

This isn't just about the "optics" of bringing up Scott Walker's lack of a college degree, either. If there was a strong criticism to be had that ran the risk of making someone sound like a jerk by saying it, then fine. But Scott Walker dropping out of Marquette before he completed his bachelor's degree is not a strong criticism for why he shouldn't be president. It is meritless.

Why do people seek bachelor's degrees? Because that's the only way to be learned -- or "knowledgeable," as Howard Dean would say? Please. Most people who get bachelor's degrees do so because it helps them get a good job. Some enjoy learning as much as they can, others just take the bare minimum in credits, but the goal is by and large the same: to certify themselves as employable via this imperfect credentialing process our society has settled on. If someone like Scott Walker has been able to achieve the career goals that usually require a college degree without having gotten that college degree, then more power to him. People who don't have a college degree shouldn't be relegated to lower-tier economic status because they didn't spend four years as young adults reading CliffsNotes. Scott Walker was able to get a good job without finishing his degree. If only everyone could be so lucky!

(Sure, there are questions abut whether Walker's exit from Marquette was more unceremonious than he'd like to let on. Harping on this seems like a plain-vanilla waste of time, rather than a totally obnoxious and poorly premised waste of time.)

The idea that Scott Walker says dumb things about evolution or foreign policy because he didn't complete the second semester of his senior year at Marquette is bogus. Anyone who doesn't think it's bogus -- or thinks it's a good political look for liberals to mock someone for not having a college degree! -- should question the value of their own formal education. Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz, to name just two of Walker's potential rivals, have absolutely impeccable academic credentials, degrees up to their knees, and this certainly doesn't prevent them from saying dumb things about evolution or foreign policy.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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