Scott Walker's latest headache: How he irked the religious right -- and what it says about his bumbling campaign

He was once touted as a uniter of the GOP's factions, but Walker is managing to peeve them all

Published March 2, 2015 10:25PM (EST)

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

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has made it abundantly clear where he stands on abortion rights. The likely Republican presidential contender opposes a woman's right to choose and has used his office to curtail that right, signing a bill that requires women having abortions to undergo ultrasounds and defunding Planned Parenthood. He backs an outright ban on all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.

Still, anti-abortion activists are up in arms over Walker's interview with Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" this weekend. Here's what transpired: Wallace played an ad from Walker's re-election campaign last year, in which Walker avowed that while he was pro-life, legislation he had signed still left “the final decision to a woman and her doctor.” That language evoked the talking points regularly employed by pro-choice politicians -- particularly those who say that while they're personally opposed to abortion, they believe the decision should ultimately rest with women and their health care providers. Of course, Walker's vaguely pro-choice rhetoric was discordant with his anti-choice record, but he was facing a tough re-election battle against a pro-choice Democratic woman; he could revert to anti-abortion form once he secured a second term and pivoted toward the 2016 GOP primaries. Now that he has made that pivot and is pitching himself as a culture warrior, Wallace naturally asked Walker what he meant by that campaign ad. Does he think that a woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy?

"Well, I think ultimately, I’m pro-life because that’s an unborn child. When I think of the ultra-sound picture that Tonette, my wife, and saw of our first son, who is now going to be 21 this June, it’s indistinguishable not to recognize that’s a human life. That’s why I’m pro-life," Walker responded. "My point is, we acted on the grounds that we have legally to be able to act under the Supreme Court’s decision, um, we’ll act that way at the federal level if we were in a position like that as well, but ultimately it is a life.”

Wallace pressed: “But ultimately, it’s her choice?”

“Well, legally that’s what it is under the guidelines that were provided from the Supreme Court," Walker replied.

Asked whether he would "change that law," Walker correctly noted that "that’s not a change you can make. The Supreme Court ultimately made that.” A president cannot unilaterally overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision which affirmed a woman's right to abortion.

Cue the conservative outrage. In an email blast to reporters, the socially conservative American Principles Project dubbed Walker's comments "another gaffe," a pointed reference to the controversies that have dogged him over the past week following his comparison of union protesters and Islamic State terrorists, as well as his claim that President Ronald Reagan's 1981 decision to fire striking air traffic controllers was Reagan's "most significant foreign policy decision."

"Coming out of a good CPAC appearance, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker just gave what I can safely call the very worst interview on the life issue I have seen from a Republican in recent memory," American Principles in Action president Frank Cannon said in a statement.  "Walker’s 'Truce' instincts were vividly on display again after his recent alleged pivot."

In a particularly piercing jab, Cannon unfavorably contrasted Walker's remarks with the anti-abortion views of Jeb Bush, the putative "moderate" in the Republicans' 2016 field.

"Claiming you are impotent to act on your core principles is neither true nor wise. What about advocating for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks?" Cannon asked. "That’s a law that has already been passed in 12 states, which the Republican National Committee endorses, and which most of his fellow presumptive Republican presidential candidates also support, Jeb Bush included."

Other social conservatives joined the pile-on.

Princeton University Professor and American Principles founder Robert George compared Walker's apparent acquiescence to Roe to resigning oneself to the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott ruling, which held that African Americans were not citizens and therefore enjoyed no rights.

While acknowledging Walker's anti-abortion views, pro-life activist Gerard Bradley called it "tragic" that Walker could not "actually bring himself to declare that Roe v. Wade is a gross injustice, that it must be reversed, and that he will work assiduously to bring about precisely that end."

On the one hand, it's not terribly difficult to see why people who dedicate their lives to opposing abortion find Walker's remarks objectionable. From their perspective, it's all well and good to talk about "life," but failing to forthrightly condemn the Supreme Court decision that paved the way for legal abortion is a grievous error. Walker may share their views on the issue -- and, it bears repeating, he's acted on those views -- but anti-abortion advocates want candidates to speak with clarity on the subject, not talk about working within the prisms of the Court's decision. The anti-abortion community knows what is. The question its members want candidates to answer is what should be.

And there's no doubt about Walker's personal answer to the latter question. His actions in Wisconsin speak far louder than his clumsy Sunday morning words, and a President Walker would likely have the opportunity to replace at least one of the Supreme Court's pro-Roe justices -- thereby overturning the current five-to-four pro-choiceish majority. As Walker said, he can't change Supreme Court precedent himself, but his appointees almost certainly would.

So the takeaway from Walker's squabble with the anti-abortion community is not that there's any ambiguity about his stance on choice. Instead, the spat further illustrates how woefully unschooled Walker is on the finer points of running a competent, coherent national campaign. Presidential bids test candidates' mettles, and the early results raise very real doubts about Walker's staying power.

I have argued, along with others, that Walker's popularity across GOP factions -- with religious conservatives, business-minded Republicans, foreign policy hawks; and Tea Partyers -- puts him in an excellent position to dislodge Jeb Bush. But Walker has now angered the Religious Right, and he has irked the others, as well. Byron York reports that many corporate donor types now find themselves unimpressed with Walker: At a confab of wealthy donors in Palm Beach this weekend, Walker related stories of his prodigious coupon-clipping, prompting the assembled plutocrats to wonder if he realized to whom he was speaking. Foreign policy types increasingly harbor their own doubts; Walker's substance-free answers to questions about international affairs make Sarah Palin look like Zbigniew Brzezinski. And don't expect the xenophobes to be mollified by Walker's shameless about-face on immigration reform.

Walker may yet improve his performance as a candidate and fulfill the role of GOP uniter; let's not forget that he currently sits atop many polls of the GOP field. But Walker's repeated stumbles risk uniting the party in another way -- against him.

By Luke Brinker

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