Governor Scott Walker has always bragged about his superior political skills, citing the fact that he’s won three gubernatorial elections in four years. But in recent weeks, he’s learned just how much harder presidential politics is than Wisconsin politics. For one thing, people pay much closer attention.
While Walker has governed Wisconsin as a conservative, he’s used to wrapping his policies in a soft blanket of moderate rhetoric that can leave room for interpretation. When he sought re-election in 2014, Walker didn’t brag about his efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. Nor did he mention his opposition to abortion in all cases, including rape and incest.
Instead, after signing a bill with a provision that would likely have shuttered a Wisconsin abortion clinic had the courts not tossed it, Walker ran an ad where he declared “there’s no doubt in my mind the decision of whether or not to end a pregnancy is an agonizing one.” And he said the bill leaves the final decision on abortion “to a woman and her doctor.”
It was textbook Walker. He was getting pounded for his position by abortion rights supporters, and though he is clearly on the right of the political dial on this issue, his delivery in the ad was designed to assure swing voters there was nothing threatening about his beliefs. But the language of the ad also underscores one of the factors Wisconsin insiders believe has contributed to Walker’s early struggles on the national campaign trail—his tendency to create his own reality.
He’s also prone to brainstorming out loud as he sifts and winnows to refine his message. And while he likes to say he’s the most scrutinized governor in America, he hasn’t had to worry before if his positions in the Wisconsin city of La Crosse were different from what he said in Green Bay.
Those tendencies all play into the stumbles that have prompted a steady stream of stories in recent weeks questioning if Walker is as authentic as he portrays himself. So far, they don’t seem to be hurting his standing in the polls or in the perception he could be the biggest threat to Jeb Bush for the GOP nomination. But the potential risk is huge: The narrative of a flip-flopper is one of the most potent in American politics—think John Kerry windsurfing in the 2004 campaign—and if takes hold, it could cost Walker the credibility with the Republican base he needs to make it through the grueling primary season ahead.
As Wisconsin insiders have watched the national scrutiny of Walker ramp up the last two months, there has been a common theme in discussions over his bumbling: Even he didn’t expect to be in this position so soon.
The original plan was a slow build up. Get state lawmakers to knock out of his budget earlier than they usually do, dip his toes in places like Iowa along the way and then fully engage once he signs the document in early summer.
But Walker’s speech at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Summit in late January changed all that. Wisconsin reporters and politicos have heard the governor give an impassioned speech in which he whipped up a partisan crowd with the kind of buildup one would expect from a preacher’s kid. They’d also heard a time or two his story about using so many coupons and other discounts while shopping at Kohl’s that the Wisconsin-based chain was “paying me to buy that shirt.”
Up to that point, the national media thought Walker was the second coming of Tim Pawlenty, a milquetoast Midwestern white guy who, while being a popular favorite son, would fail to evoke the national enthusiasm necessary for a serious presidential bid. That notion went out the door when Walker transfixed the Iowa crowd by recounting the graphic death threats he got after taking on public employee unions—including the one that memorably promised to gut his wife “like a deer.” When the media realized he had some fire in the belly, the fuse was suddenly lit on Walker’s meteoric media rise.
Walker quickly seized that momentum, crisscrossing the country as he established himself in the top tier of GOP contenders. But the accelerated timetable deprived Walker of months he would have otherwise spent honing his spiel on a host of issues outside his wheelhouse. Walker is rock solid in his messaging about taking on public employee unions or cutting taxes. His answer for what’s prepared him to take on ISIL, however, hasn’t been as smooth, and that Walker trait of sifting and winnowing in public has reared its head at times.
Look at the dustup over his position on ethanol.
Appearing before the Iowa Ag Summit last month, Walker was asked about his position on the renewable fuel standard. His answer was more than 300 words long, contained a number of asides and was interpreted initially as Walker indicating his support for maintaining the policy in an attempt to put himself in the good graces of Iowans.
Considering Walker had previously opposed ethanol mandates, some immediately took it as a flip-flop. Walker’s aides pushed back against that interpretation, pointing to the piece of his answer in which he said his goal was to get to the point where the standard wasn’t needed.
Compare that to his answer on the mandate last week when he appeared at an event hosted by a Milwaukee conservative talk show host. Walker said he wants the mandate to end within a couple of years and then pivoted to making a bigger point about federal regulations.
“I’d like to see a whole series of regulations and mandates be phased out by the first term of the next president,” he said.
“Scott Walker is not the first politician in American who has tailored his message to his audience,” one Wisconsin-based GOP operative said. (As just one sign of his rising national profile: Some Wisconsin-based GOP operatives are increasingly hesitant to go on the record criticizing Walker.)
Nor is he the first politician to get tripped-up when moving from a regional to national spotlight. All presidential candidates face scrutiny, but it goes double for Walker, who seems to be building the foundation of his presidential campaign on the idea that he’s an unflappable straight shooter. Still, while even rivals have marveled at Walker’s overall message discipline, he isn’t above a little verbal gymnastics in delivering his lines.
Walker has always had a knack for spin, especially when backed into a corner, which has made his early struggles perplexing to some in Wisconsin.