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Can Scott Walker be president someday? Sure. The world has become a really scary place. In times like that – think ISIS, think Ebola, think the still sputtering economy – people want a leader of certainty. They want someone strong and resolute.
They’re looking for an archetype. They want a "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" or "wanted, dead or alive" protector – not a president who’s perpetually on the golf course. Walker’s the anti-Obama. No one believes in Obama’s "the world will love us if we would just be nicer to the world!" naiveté anymore, not with ISIS massacring women, American citizens, gays and Christians. They fell for the soaring rhetoric and celebrity-style charisma last time. Look where it got them.
After all, what is Vladimir Putin in the public imagination but just another union boss? The rest of the GOP potential primary field is not that deep. Can you imagine Bobby Jindal sitting across the table from Putin? C’mon.
Can you imagine Walker? Sure. He’s crystallized as the guy who took everything they threw at him and stood his ground (people forget that he threw stuff at "them" first). Some of it is mythology, but that sells. Ever see the final duel scene in Clint Eastwood’s "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?" That’s what people want in a president right now. The guy who doesn’t blink.
So, if the phrase "President Scott Walker" makes you want to move to a foreign country, start shopping for airfare. My father threatened to move to Ireland if George W. Bush was re-elected. Last time I looked, he was still in California.
I can easily imagine a scenario in which Walker is elected president someday. Maybe in two years (although he has to get through the Hillary machine first). It’s the narrative that voters want, and that’s the part he’s nailed. And stuck to with the relentless focus of a political Energizer bunny.
But does Walker want the presidency? That answer is also obvious. Walker’s said things like maybe he will run for president in six years and how he "plans" to serve his full term as governor and so forth. But he’s been running for president since the second he won the governor’s race (heck, perhaps even before. Has Walker ever NOT being running?).
Walker is going to run for president. He’s telegraphing this inevitability, whether it’s taking a shot at Hillary’s age (a novice move that just highlights his own inexperience on the national stage) or asking the Legislature to move up the state budget process (after all, who wants to announce a run for president with that massive shortfall not yet fixed?) "I’m running because there is a huge shortfall that doesn’t really exist because we will find ways to fix it eventually," is hardly a winning message (although, come to think of it, that did work the last time. Which just proves my point that it’s the narrative people want).
Walker’s been railing against the federal government, saying governors make the best presidents, and mentioning "America" in every other sentence. Get used to the words, "Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch." (Why do I suspect a lot of planes to Ireland will be filled up to the brim if that happens…) If they’re honest, a lot of Republicans aren’t that thrilled with the idea of Gov. Kleefisch, either, but they want a President Walker more.
Years ago, I told a friend: "You want to understand Scott Walker? You just need to understand one thing. Everything – and I do mean everything – is a political stratagem."
I never got that sense from other Wisconsin Republicans. Tommy Thompson was a backroom wheeler and dealer, but it always seemed like he was doing the gig primarily because he loved boosting this state. Paul Ryan is an example of a politician mostly motivated by the intellectual challenge of tackling big policy questions that matter.
I think Walker loves this state, but he loves politics most.
Some national liberal pundits have called our governor the "non-charismatic" potential presidential contender as if to count him out. I think they’re very wrong. You can see, if you’re watching closely, that the governor has already recalibrated his message for a national audience. He’s going to run as the outsider, the non-Washington guy, who’s going to ride into town and clean up Obama’s mess, shrinking the size of government. Act 10 will be his version of Reagan’s air traffic controllers. He studied his idol well. Maybe he can borrow Sheriff Clarke’s horse.
Why would he wait six years, when there could be a Republican incumbent vying for a second term then? It makes a lot more sense to run for an open seat now, when he’s all the rage. The head of the Republican National Committee right now is a Wisconsinite – and close Walker friend (Reince Priebus). That can’t hurt.
The Republican side lacks a Hillary, someone who is owed. Jeb Bush is smart, telegenic, nuanced, and he can appeal to the Latino vote, a key demographic Republicans need. But he’s a Bush. It’s rather dynastic. He would earn his brother’s enemies. Christie has his bridge, Ted Cruz his extremism, Ryan his Ways and Means, Perry his indictment, and Rand Paul seems too isolationist in a post-ISIS world. That doesn’t mean Walker is a sure thing for a Republican nom. It means he’s got too good of a chance to count him out.
Sure, charisma or lack thereof matters somewhat. Nixon learned about the televised era the hard way when he ran against the more telegenic Kennedy, of course (who does Walker resemble more? Um…). Tommy Thompson’s goofy "I love my state!" boosterish rhetoric sounded authentic on the small stage but rube-like on the large one. There’s a reason that the number of bald presidents dropped dramatically after the advent of television. A person needs to "look" and sound presidential. John McCain looked geriatric compared to Obama. That mattered.
Walker? Well, his national TV presence could be worked on. When I watched the gov on Meet the Press after the election, I couldn’t help but notice that one of his eyes looked asleep. Walker has a china doll’s painted eyes. You can’t really see into them or get a sense of him through them. And there’s that nasal speech.
Some studies have shown that introverts are much less likely to be elected president. And Walker’s storied coolness under pressure can get rocked a little when he leaves the friendly bubble of talk radio and local TV. He wasn’t great when he was peppered with follow up questions by national TV personalities on the John Doe, and his comments about Hillary’s age seemed petty (even if that’s not how he meant it, he should have known that any swipe at Hillary, even backhanded, would be blown up by the national media. So make the swipes count).
I’ve always thought that Walker’s wonky, somewhat robotic, detail-laden speaking style was a hindrance to higher office (contrast it to Obama’s soaring campaign speeches or Reagan’s folksiness). Of course, juxtaposed against a deer-in-the-headlights, nervous and unprepared opponent (Mary Burke), Walker’s wonkiness morphed into confident ease. But how will it seem next to a larger-than-life personality, a Christie or a Huckabee? (Lucky for him, Hillary is pretty robotic herself. She is not her husband’s orator).
I’ve seen Walker speak in person many times since the governor’s race primary of ’05-’06. It’s easy to forget that now, but Walker dropped out because the Republican base (and some of the old Tommy network) preferred Congressman Mark Green. Walker spoke from the head, not the heart. He had enormous mastery of policy details, but not the ability to connect with people through empathy (Bill Clinton was a master at both. Mary Burke lacked both).
However, even then, I noticed something else about Walker that set him apart: He inspired true believers. It was almost cultish, the blind loyalty. At the time, I jokingly labeled him Scott Skywalker to highlight this point.
The secret: Walker created a political archetype that people want, and he sticks to that archetype – no matter what. He forged his message in the fire of the pension revolt recalls (you can see traces of every message point originating back then, such as public worker benefits) and by studying Reagan. Then talk radio repeats it over and over again.
He’s a relentlessly efficient campaigner who defines himself through a foil – "supposedly greedy" public workers, taxes, and government benefits. Government itself. That’s his evil empire.
That’s why it doesn’t matter to voters that there’s a huge projected budget deficit, or that he’s driven up the state’s debt, or that he didn’t meet his job creation promise, or that some other states are doing better on the jobs front, or that some of his aides were convicted of crimes for stealing from veterans and misusing taxpayer resources, or that he either knew about that or didn’t with neither being a wonderful option or that he seems incapable of making his mind up on the casino. That must drive Democrats mad.
If you ask Walker supporters why they like him, they respond by reciting personality traits or sweeping positions (like reducing the size of government). It’s visceral, not logical. He’s fearless. He’s strong. He stands his ground. Have you ever seen Walker look angry or lose his cool? He makes bold policy moves (decimate the unions!) while still seeming friendly and calm. It impresses people that he withstood an avalanche of pressure without ever seeming to crack.
Walker has improved a lot on the stump since those old speeches. When he sits in a chair and speaks directly to the public through a television screen, he creates a zone of, if not empathy, then intimacy, almost a fireside chat. Like you could imagine having a beer with him, and he’d be an affable guy. He seems candid and real. This works well for him. The smaller stage, not the bigger one.
I’m curious how he will fare in the buzz saw of the national media, of course, as those reporters will rediscover everything we already know about him. However, that Club for Growth guy Eric O’Keefe did him a favor by working his Wall Street Journal sources and thus defining the John Does on the national stage the way he did and when he did. Means the national media will "rediscover" something they already know.
When asked follow-up questions he doesn’t like, Walker just tends to repeat himself over and over again ("but I said it’s old news!") until the reporters get frustrated and go away. And then the base likes him more because the so-called "liberal media" doesn’t. Whether the national reporters will just go away is left to be seen. Whether Walker will stumble with more "Hillary is old" style comments or restrain his tendency to launch into undisciplined stream of consciousness is also an open question.
However, I think people who are counting Walker out are fooling themselves. That’s the bottom line. There’s a reason he keeps winning. And there’s no doubt that he could also have national appeal, especially if he can find and highlight an inner Reaganesque optimism along with the strength.
Sure Walker has no foreign policy experience, but Hillary has Benghazi. Not having a college degree? Won’t matter to people. After all, Reagan was just an actor. Putin doesn’t seem very erudite. Walker’s obvious intellectual command of details negates the college problem.
Hillary would be a very tough opponent (and I do think she will be the Democratic nominee). She’s tougher, wiser, seasoned in the national cauldron, and far more versed on the issues than anyone Walker’s ever run against. I wouldn’t count her out, by any means, and in fact I might bet my bank account that she, not Walker, will be our next president (this time anyway). Walker’s threat to sue over Obama’s immigration moves (in contrast to the more measured responses of Kasich, Christie, and Jindal) plays to the primary audience. As a national electoral vote strategy in a country with changing demographics? Not so much.
In a way, the Clintons and Walker have some things in common. The key to understanding both Hillary and Bill is also that everything – and I do mean everything – is a political stratagem. Walker’s met his match on that front. They’re just as polarizing too.
The only difference is that the older Bill wanted to be JFK, and Walker wants to be Reagan. Hillary just wants to make history. She has the benefit, though, of people missing Bill’s economy.
Walker’s only 47. If he has to, he’ll do what he did in 2006, and drop out of the presidential primary at just the right time, earning markers for his grace, and positioning himself to be the next guy. There’s a grander plan at work than ’16. Or he’ll lose narrowly to Hillary and run the next time or the time after that. President Walker? It wouldn’t surprise me. Someday at least.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.