Scott Walker (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

Scott Walker's no-good, very-bad campaign: Why his supposedly ingenious electoral strategy could be doomed to fail

The Wisconsin governor should be a right-wing favorite this primary season—but so far, they don't trust him at all


Heather Digby Parton
July 14, 2015 9:25PM (UTC)

The suspense is over. We can all let out that deep breath we've been holding for so long, wondering if it would ever actually happen. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared he was running for president yesterday. Can you feel the magic? I knew that you could.

He had to announce a bit later than originally planned due to Wisconsin's budget being such a mess that even his own Republicans allies are rebelling. It has been an ugly process, to say the least. But he finally got it done and now he's officially a candidate for the presidency. Unfortunately for him, being the 795th candidate to jump into the race doesn't appear to have garnered much excitement. After Donald Trump barnstorming around the Southwest stirring up the xenophobes and Jeb announcing that he and his super PAC have enough money collected to start their own country if this presidency thing doesn't pan out, the Great Whitebread Hope of the Republican Party seems just a little bit late to the party.

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For those who are unfamiliar with Walker's essential wingnuttiness, Elias Isquith wrote a piece yesterday listing Walker's hardcore conservative-movement credentials. But for those unfamiliar with Walker's personality -- which rivals previous allegedly charismatic ex-governors upper Midwest, such as Tim "smokin' hot" Pawlenty and Tommy Thompson for colorless vapidity -- this piece by Brian Beutler featuring Walker's Twitter feed over the past few years actually paints a disturbing picture of a real-life Chauncey Gardner:

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There are many, many more like that. We all have Facebook friends who feel the need to share every passing thought with everyone they know. They tell you what they had for lunch and announce whenever they are tired and need a cup of coffee. These are people who make Facebook so boring you'd rather watch "Fox and Friends" just to not feel so dead inside. It's a big Republican field, but as far as I know none of those people are running for president. Thank goodness.

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But still, Walker is considered a Very Serious Candidate despite numerous gaffes and many pictures of him in a silly-looking helmet riding a motorcycle. And that's because he is reportedly going to deploy an ingenious strategy that will boldly go where no candidate has gone before. The National Journal reports:

In the six months since he gave a dazzling speech in Des Moines that rocketed him to the front of Iowa polls, Walker has shifted his tone—if not his position—on a number of issues to align himself with Iowa Republicans. Once a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, Walker now says he opposes "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Once an opponent of federal ethanol mandates, Walker told an Iowa agricultural forum in March that he supports them. Once criticized by social-conservative leaders for airing that moderate-sounding abortion ad and declaring the same-sex marriage fight "over" in Wisconsin, Walker now frames his presidential launch by signing a 20-week abortion ban and arguing for a constitutional amendment to let states define marriage. [...]

Walker's team understands the risk of looking like a flip-flopper. And his allies acknowledge the danger in appealing to Iowans at the expense of the rest of the electorate.

But they also know if he doesn't deliver on expectations in Iowa – which meaning winning, period – the campaign may not last long enough for those other concerns to be relevant. That's why, according to Walker allies, he's going to pursue exactly the opposite strategy Romney used in 2012. Whereas Romney started in the middle and moved rightward throughout primary season, Walker is starting on the right and will shift toward the middle.

"You start in Iowa and lock up conservatives, because if you don't do that, none of the rest matters," said one longtime Walker adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss campaign strategy. "It's much easier to move from being a conservative to being a middle-of-the-road moderate later on."

The adviser added: "In Iowa, you see the beginnings of that. He's capturing that conservative wing first and foremost, and then moving from Iowa to the other states and bringing other voters into the fold."

Yes, yes, I know you think that the idea of securing the base in the primaries and then moving to the middle is the moldiest of stale strategic tropes.  And you'd be ... right. Why anyone thinks this is worth remarking upon is the most remarkable thing about it.

Now it may be true that Romney "started in the middle and moved rightward" but I don't think anyone deludes themselves that this was the preferred strategy. It just so happened that Romney was a pretty moderate governor (by modern GOP standards) who wanted to stay in the middle so he could get elected. Unfortunately for him, the GOP base forced him so far to the right he ended up sounding like a cross between Pat Buchanan and Scrooge McDuck before the whole thing was over.

It's understandable that the campaign is pretending that this is some kind of novel strategy, but the truth is that someone with Walker's record who shares a major media market with the Iowa caucuses shouldn't have to work this hard to get the far right's endorsement. The truth is that for all of his wingnut bona fides (and they are very, very real), the right wing of the Republican Party, particularly the social conservatives, don't trust him. Recall that the grand poobahs summoned him to Washington to explain his various tiny deviations from their approved talking points just this past May:

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The governor has made a string of comments on social conservatives’ top issues that has earned him some suspicion, and even ire...So when Walker headed to Capitol Hill to try to win conservative hearts and minds, the leaders in attendance had lots of questions. One attendee said that about 50 top social conservative and evangelical leaders were present, including Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, Brian Brown of National Organization for Marriage, Michael Needham of Heritage Action, and Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center.

The jury was still out at last report.

This isn't all Walker's fault, of course. He should be able to count on these religious-right power brokers to be in his corner after all his years of doctrinaire devotion to the cause. Just because he had to fudge a little bit to win elections doesn't mean he won't deliver. The problem is that the religious right is feeling very, very unloved these days, what with the gays marrying and all. They don't want someone who is winking and nodding at them. They want a crusader for the cause. And with this big field, they can make their wishes known in Iowa if they choose to do it. Remember, Pat Robertson beat Bush Sr. in Iowa in 1988 (coming in second to Bob Dole). Santorum beat Romney there in 2012. Walker is fighting for their votes because he doesn't have them in his pocket. And if he doesn't have the religious right who does he have.

The National Journal article concludes with this:

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The rationale for Walker's candidacy has always been his unique ability to bridge the Republican divide, appealing to both the conservative and moderate wings of the party while also presenting himself as the type of wholesome, aw-shucks everyman who appeals across party lines.

There's only one problem with that analysis. It assumes there is a moderate wing of the party that votes in presidential primaries. There isn't. Whether it's the social conservatives in Iowa or the libertarians in New Hampshire or the Confederate flag-waving anti-immigrant zealots in South Carolina, the base of the Republican Party is very, very far right. And they want their candidates to articulate their philosophy in no uncertain terms. The rest of the country, not so much.

It's possible that a truly great politician could successfully thread this extremely fine needle, but a guy who thinks his meatloaf dinner and his oil changes are interesting to other people isn't one of them. People may say they want a "regular guy" for president. But they don't really mean it.


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.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Scott Walker The Far Right The Republican Party The Republican Primary




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