In my view, the big question in Republican presidential politics is how Scott Walker will perform as a candidate. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Walker has already proven that he can deliver red meat in a prepared speech. He proved it again at CPAC last week.
But can Walker impressively discuss and eventually impressively debate the broad range of issues that will present themselves during the course of a long campaign? And if he cannot yet do so, will he be able adequately to bone up while running his state?
Last week, Walker appeared at the Club for Growth’s winter conference in Florida. Eliana Johnson’s account of his performance strongly suggests that Walker isn’t ready for prime time (see also Jennifer Rubin’s write-up). Because I have high hopes for Walker, I found these reports distressing.
Parts of Eliana’s account portray Walker as unprepared to discuss important issues — Dodd-Frank, the Export-Import Bank — with any insight or even much familiarity. That’s a problem, but a fixable one.
However, one of Walker’s comments suggests a deeper problem. According to several reports, including Eliana’s, Walker stated that the “most consequential foreign-policy decision” of his lifetime was Reagan’s 1981 firing of 11,000 air-traffic controllers. He explained that through this action, Reagan sent a message not only across America, but around the world “that we wouldn’t be messed with.”
It’s obvious where Walker wants to go with this. Firing air traffic controllers clearly isn’t Reagan’s most consequential foreign policy decision. But it is the one thing Reagan did that is closely analogous to Walker’s claim to fame — facing down public employee unions. Hence, Walker’s attempt to exaggerate the importance of Reagan’s showdown with a union.
Union leaders and their Democratic allies can be unsavory, to be sure. But it’s an unfortunate reach to compare them to Putin, ISIS, or the leaders of Iran. One simply cannot infer from Walker’s political success against the public employee unions that he will succeed against America’s enemies on the world stage. After all, President Obama has successfully faced down his political opponents on occasion, and Bill Clinton ran rings around Newt Gingrich. Yet our enemies flourished during both presidencies.
Reagan’s foreign policy success was based on a profound understanding of the nature of our primary enemy, coupled with familiarity with world affairs developed over decades of engagement. Walker needs to show at least some level of such understanding, familiarity, and engagement. He cannot rely on the fact that he is a tough guy.
Nor can Walker lean too heavily on his Wisconsin successes. Governors who do so become vulnerable to ridicule. Remember Michael Dukakis? His stock answer to almost any question was to cite “the Massachusetts Miracle.” As one of his opponents said, the real miracle would be if Dukakis could answer a question without invoking “the Massachusetts miracle.”
Walker should avoid appearing like a guy who hit a home run and thinks it was a “walk off” blow. His work as governor gets him a seat at the table. Once there, he needs to show some new cards.
This is particularly true now that Walker, as I expected, has emerged as a top tier candidate and, arguably, the front-runner. If he continues to hold that status, much will be expected of him during the debates and he will become the target of some pretty fearsome debaters.
Moreover, with foreign policy looming as a big, and potentially winning, issue for Republicans, GOP voters will likely demand a candidate who can successfully debate foreign policy with Hillary Clinton. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush probably can. Can Walker?
If Walker doesn’t step up his game, he might become the Rick Perry of this cycle — a highly successful governor who fizzled badly under fire.
UPDATE: A reader informs me that George Shultz, the Secretary of State during part of Ronald Reagan’s term, has said that Reagan’s most important foreign policy decision was the firing of the air traffic controllers as the result of a labor dispute. Shultz, it should be recalled, was a labor economist and served as Secretary of Labor under Richard Nixon.
Shultz reportedly has briefed Walker on foreign policy. He may well be the source of Walker’s statement.
With all respect to chultz, who has earned plenty of it, I doubt that the firing of the ATCs was more consequential then, say, the arms build-up. In any event, for the reasons set forth above, Walker needs to step up his game, especially when it comes to foreign relations. There’s a world of difference between ISIS, the Iranian mullahs, etc. and Wisconsin’s public employee union leaders.