Scott Walker is making the wrong kind of sense

Wisconsin Governor and newly-ordained GOP frontrunner Scott Walker got under DC’s skin again yesterday when he compared union protesters to Islamic State militants.

After a Conservative Political Action Conference audience member asked him how he would handle threats from Islamic extremists, Walker gave what was on track to be a standard response before, with the kind of pause-and-smirk that can only precede a prepared one-liner, quipped that “If I can take on a 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

Watch below:

Walker’s answer exploded the heads of very smart people across the political spectrum, even drawing a reaction from the National Review’s Jim Geraghty:

…it is insulting to the protesters, a group I take no pleasure in defending. The protesters in Wisconsin, so furiously angry over Walker’s reforms and disruptive to the procedures of passing laws, earned plenty of legitimate criticism. But they’re not ISIS. They’re not beheading innocent people. They’re Americans, and as much as we may find their ideas, worldview, and perspective spectacularly wrongheaded, they don’t deserve to be compared to murderous terrorists.

This misses the point. Scott Walker knows that union workers aren’t terrorists, and he knows how irresponsible it is to make the comparison. His answer is but the latest in a long line of answers to relatively modest questions — What are your thoughts on evolution? Does President Obama love America? Is he a Christian? — that have ranged from intellectually empty to chalkboard-scratchingly insulting. But diehard mainstream political observers would do well to remember that, especially at CPAC, he isn’t talking to them.

This should be especially clear after Public Policy Polling survey released a survey of national GOP voters this week showing Walker surging ahead of his likely opponents after his series of C-minus answers to 8th grade civics and biology questions. As noted by Alex Theodoridis in the Washington Post, as stupid as Scott Walker sounds, his answers place him squarely in line with the median GOP voter, who wants a candidate that can not only win, but will punch the liberal establishment in the mouth while they do it.

As Peter Beinart pointed out last month in the Atlantic:

Walker’s rise illustrates the pitfalls of media coverage of the GOP race. Not many national reporters live within the conservative media ecosystem. They therefore largely assume that in order to win over the non-white, female, millennial and working class voters who rejected John McCain and Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidates must break from conservative orthodoxy, if not substantively, then at least rhetorically.

…Walker’s rise is a reminder that among Republican primary voters, and especially Iowa-caucus goers, the market for ideological or even stylistic innovation, may be smaller than the media assumes.

For the Jim Geraghtys of the world, who are presumably tearing their hair out over how dumb their current frontrunner is sounding, they really should have seen this coming after nearly sixteen years of their party living in, as Mike Huckabee would lovingly describe it, Bubbaville. Either Scott Walker is the product of the growing know-nothing caucus within the GOP, or he is playing to it. Either way, it’s the soup that any eventual Republican nominee is going to have to swim in.

Scott Walker, via Gil C / Shutterstock.com

Scott Walker, via Gil C / Shutterstock.com

And if you’re Scott Walker, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being the candidate stirring that soup. Smart Republican strategists, a few of whom I would assume Walker has consulted, paid attention in 2012. In that election, conservative activists flocked to Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich and then Rick Santorum before Mitt Romney was able to outspend them all to lock up the nomination. These strategists all noticed the cultural fault lines in the GOP, and they know that a candidate who can exploit these fault lines while still appearing somewhat passable as the party’s standard-bearer is the only kind of candidate that can upend the establishment.

They know that half-concessions like “I don’t know” and “I don’t question the President’s motives” — messaging that has been repeated both by Walker and candidates who have been forced to respond to recent Walker-driven news cycles — let the base know that their candidate is one of them, all while avoiding the national fireworks that would ensue if the base was told what they really wanted to hear.

Scott Walker doesn’t have the brand, nor does he have the money, beat Jeb Bush without first locking up the Crazy Caucus. His path to victory is laden with union-busting creationists who believe that President Obama is an American-hating Muslim, so we should get used to answers from him that speak to this (large) slice of the GOP electorate.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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