While former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani keeps trying to squeeze just a few more minutes of national attention from his latest spasm of inchoate fear and rage, the maneuverings of Scott Walker, the current governor of Wisconsin and likely future presidential candidate, have been harder to understand. Did he flirt with endorsing some of his party’s most noxious, tribalist and unhinged attacks on the president because he’s unaccustomed to the pressures of national-level politics? Or is Walker playing a long game, trying to gain attention and win over the GOP base’s perpetually outraged base now, with an idea to placate a nervous party establishment later? (I’m guessing it’s a bit of both, but that Walker’s preference to remain in his state’s hard-right media bubble is the most influential factor.)
Barring some truly strange and unforeseen circumstances, though, we’ll have plenty of time during at least the next year to watch Walker and divine his true intentions. So rather than crawl any deeper into that rabbit hole, I’d like to offer instead an qualified defense. Not of Walker, who seems to be gearing up to run the most Nixonland-esque campaign since George H.W. Bush in 1988, but of the Washington Post journalists who asked him whether he believed President Obama was a Christian. Predictably, Walker’s team and many conservatives have complained that the questions about Giuliani and Obama were frivolous attempts intended to make the governor look bad. More surprisingly, they’ve been joined in this assessment by a few influential members of the media. But however touching it might be to see conservatives and the elite media come together, they’re both still wrong.
From what I’ve seen, there are two critiques of these alleged “gotcha” questions that have been most common and most likely to be endorsed by people both within and without the right-wing media ecosystem. Taken in reverse order of strength, the arguments hold that: 1) These questions are evidence of a liberal double-standard; and 2) These questions are irrelevant to the issues of the day and the coming presidential election. The former is an exceedingly mild variation on the usual liberal media canard, and not worth too much of anyone’s time. But the second gets to a deeper truth about American democracy, and why it’s unlikely that Walker will win the White House if he indeed decides to campaign this way.
Complaints about the supposed biases of the liberal media are like an ever-present background noise on the right, so examples aren’t hard to find. Still, I think the answer Sen. Marco Rubio gave recently when asked to weigh in on Giuliani’s comments was the best version of the argument I’ve heard in some time. “I don’t feel like I’m in a position to have to answer for every person in my party that makes a claim,” Rubio said. “Democrats aren’t asked to answer every time Joe Biden says something embarrassing, so I don’t know why I should answer every time a Republican does.” Of course, Biden being Biden (which is not always so amusing) gets less attention because it’s not as newsworthy as an ex-presidential candidate all but calling the president a traitor. But as far as whataboutism from conservatives goes, Rubio’s entry is pretty good.
But the second criticism of the media’s treatment of Walker — its alleged obsession with supposed non-issues like the governor’s estimation of Obama’s faith — has an appeal that transcends the hard right. And I get it: If you’re someone who follows politics closely, you could quite understandably see asking Walker about the president’s patriotism and faith as the media trying to turn complex issues into clashes of personalities, once again. Yet the reason that’d be a mistake is because that’s not the mindset most appropriate for reporters covering Walker, who is a big deal in Republican politics while simultaneously being relatively unknown by the public at large. Most voters still don’t know who Scott Walker is, in other words, and asking him to respond to culture war questions involving the first African-American president is as good an introduction as any.
Why? Because when Walker is asked whether he thinks Obama loves the U.S., or whether he believes Obama’s claims to be a Christian, his answers don’t simply tell voters how he feels about the president. They also reveal how Walker feels about many voters. Not just those religious minorities or people of color who support the president, mind you; also those who don’t support the president but interpret these identity-based smears as attacks on them, too. And when Walker refuses to endorse Obama’s membership in the broader American community, and treats the surprise and criticism he receives in response with cynicism and disdain, he’s telling millions of non-Republican voters that he doesn’t care about their sensitivities. Or is so out of touch that he’s oblivious to how he’ll be interpreted, which isn’t much better.
The message that will come through for not all but many, in other words, is that when it comes to their worldview, their social anxieties and their vision of what it means to be American, Walker couldn’t care less. With just that small gesture of resentment, just that small refusal to placate voters who want to be assured that he’s not the kind of Republican who hates the president, Walker quickly reveals more about himself, and more about the kind of politician he’s decided to be, than he could with any policy platform or other wonkish press release. We need to remember that the vast majority of Americans are too busy to delve into the nuts and bolts of policy — much less follow the ins and outs of Wisconsin state-level politics. But they know how they feel about Obama, and what they think he represents.
So asking presidential candidate to pick a side in a culture war squabble, or try to rise above it entirely, is a good way to help the less wonkish among us understand the people who want to be their next president. I hope it happens more throughout the weeks and months of the coming presidential campaign, not less.