Scott Walker just can't win: How the religious right's extremism is sabotaging his chances

No matter how far to the right the Wisconsin governor goes, it will never be enough for a Republican base gone mad

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 1, 2015 1:57PM (EDT)

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

Scott Walker just can't seem to make to his mind about anything. He says he's for a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and then turns around and starts railing against "amnesty" and talking about closing the border to legal immigrants too. Where he once came out strongly against ethanol mandates, now that he's campaigning in Iowa, he sees the good in them. 

But considering his reputation as a hardcore social conservative, this particular flip-flop came as a huge disappointment to his base during the 2014 gubernatorial race:

He signed legislation defunding Planned Parenthood in the Badger State and requiring that women seeking abortions get ultrasounds first but then ran an ad in his 2012 gubernatorial reelection bid saying he backed legislation that “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.

That wasn't the only "family values" issue on which Walker seemed wobbly. He was quoted being blithely dismissive of the Wisconsin Court's ruling overturning the state's ban on same sex marriage when he said “it doesn’t really matter what I think now ... I don’t comment on everything out there.” He even defended the state's law prohibiting employer discrimination against LGBT people, which really sent the base around the bend.

As a contender for the Republican nomination for president, he desperately needs to shore up that religious-right base. They were apparently upset enough with his flip-flopping on these issues of deep principle that he felt the need to have a meeting with social conservative leaders in Washington not too long ago to reassure them of his fealty to their cause. And he made quite an impression: Explaining that he had signed a bill which required women seeking abortions to submit to ultrasounds, and required doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, Walker now claims that saying he supports leaving "the final decision to a woman and her doctor" was actually a clever bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu that co-opts the pro-choice language. And for some reason they bought it.

One of the attendees, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, was very impressed by this cunning plan, saying, “to the extent that we use the other side’s rhetoric to undermine their positions, we’re better off."

To the extent that his rationale made any sense at all, that might even be true. But it doesn't. Still, Dannenfelser was extremely taken with Walker's rhetorical skills in general saying, “it’s the whole style of communication and content of communication that you want to see moving into a presidential cycle that will make it different from 2012.” But she also wanted to see some serious action on the legislative front before they offered up any real support, and he assured them that he would sign legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks. They were happy to give him the benefit of the doubt:

“He has an opportunity to authenticate his stated convictions, and I have every belief that he’ll do that,” Dannenfelser said. “My view is that he gets it and he’s got good people around him, and we’re in good shape,” she added.

Well, last week Walker "authenticated his stated conviction" with authority. He not only promised to sign the bill banning abortion after 20 weeks, just to ram home his commitment to social conservatism he happily agreed to do it with no exception for rape and incest. After all, nothing says family values like forcing a 12 year old girl to give birth to her father's child.

But Walker may not be out of the woods just yet. While pro-choice advocates are predictably appalled by this antediluvian law, so too are the pro-lifers.  It doesn't go far enough you see: It contains a medical emergency exception for the mother. Matt Sande of Pro-­Life Wisconsin said in a statement:

“[I]t is utter hypocrisy for proponents of the bill to decry the horror of dismembering a child through a dilation and evacuation abortion and then carve out an exception for babies whose mother’s lives may be endangered, as if those babies somehow don’t feel pain. We urge legislators to refrain from co­sponsoring this bill until the medical emergency exception is fully removed.”

You read that right. They have come to the point where the woman's life isn't even worthy of consideration.

Unfortunately for Scott Walker, this whole thing puts him in a very difficult position. He talks the talk very nicely, but the walk they want him to walk is right over a cliff. Recall that last week Gallup released a poll showing that social liberals and social conservatives were at parity for the first time since they began asking the question. And on Friday they released this little factoid from the poll:

Half of Americans consider themselves "pro-choice" on abortion, surpassing the 44% who identify as "pro-life." This is the first time since 2008 that the pro-choice position has had a statistically significant lead in Americans' abortion views.

For most of the past five years, Americans have been fairly evenly divided in their association with the two abortion labels. The only exception between 2010 and 2014 was in May 2012, when the pro-life position led by 50% to 41%.

Prior to 2009, the pro-choice side almost always predominated, including in the mid-1990s by a substantial margin. While support for the pro-choice position has yet to return to the 53% to 56% level seen at the time, the trend has been moving in that direction since the 2012 reading.

While Gallup does not define the pro-choice and pro-life terms for Americans, their answers to a separate question about the legality of abortion indicate that those favoring the pro-choice label generally support broad abortion rights, while pro-life adherents mostly favor limited or no abortion rights.

The truth is that the country has been divided pretty evenly on this issue for decades, with the pro-life and pro-choice sides always bouncing around 50 percent. But the fact that this has made a rather abrupt turn toward the pro-choice side since 2012 speaks to the fact that state laws such as the one Walker signed are going too far and the public is balking at such extremism.

It's lately been fashionable among some liberals and progressives to proclaim that the "War on Women" theme was a huge mistake because the mid-term elections of 2014 were a rout. The suggestion is that the Democrats would be wise to start "moving to the center" on social issues, particularly abortion rights, because it's obvious that this is a big loser for them. Hopefully they will look at these numbers and rethink that analysis. One of the perennial weaknesses of Democratic strategy is that they are so often unwilling to let issues percolate among the public for a while to gain some traction. It would appear that the issue of abortion rights being under assault in the states has finally penetrated the consciousness of the electorate, and it would be a big mistake for Democrats to turn back now.

Scott Walker and the rest of the GOP field, on the other hand, are being squeezed from both sides. They can read these polls and know that the national electorate is going in the wrong direction for them on these issues. People's views on marriage equality and now the big kahuna, abortion rights, aren't in their favor. But in order to win, they have to please people like that fellow in Wisconsin who literally thinks women should die rather than be allowed to have an abortion. With this, as with all the other issues domestic and foreign, the Republican Party in 2015 is no longer in the mainstream. They're being held down by their base and they have no idea how to escape.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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