What People Don't Get About 'Boring and Bland' Scott Walker
In a campaign ad released during the final days of his highly contested re-election effort last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker never broke eye contact with the camera. He leaned slightly forward, inched closer to the viewer, and arched his eyebrows as he slowly explained the controversial bill he signed into law that requires a woman to undergo an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy.
"The bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor," Walker said about the measure, adding that "reasonable people can disagree on this issue."
Fast forward three months to this past weekend in Iowa, where Walker made his pitch for why America needs someone exactly like him to run for president. His speech was delivered to a room full of conservative voters just getting to know the man most famous for surviving a labor union-led recall attempt in 2012. “A lot of people know about the protests and the recall,” Walker told the audience, “but they don’t know about the comprehensive, conservative, common-sense conservative agenda that we’ve enacted in our states.”
Walker's first example of that "aggressive agenda" under his watch: the “pro-life legislation” he signed into law. Suddenly, the “health and safety” measure he described as benign to Wisconsin’s general election voters had become one of his top conservative credentials for Iowa’s evangelical activists.
While Walker takes his lumps among Republican consultants and the national media for being, well, boring on stage, his Iowa speech showcased one of his overlooked yet sharpest rhetorical skills: spin. Unlike Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee or most other potential GOP contenders who hail from deeply conservative states, Walker has honed his ability to sell conservatives on his credentials without alienating a critical mass of moderates needed to win a general election.
Finding a way to thread that needle is an issue that weighs heavily on Republicans. Mitt Romney, for example, tacked to the right on immigration in 2012 to outlast a crowded, conservative field, and it ultimately came back to haunt him in the general election, when just 27 percent of Hispanic voters backed the Republican nominee. Walker's three statewide victories in Wisconsin's politically moderate electorate shows a certain proficiency in this arena.
“It’s impressive how he’s able to downplay controversies that he doesn’t want to be a part of,” Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, which has been keeping close tabs on the Wisconsin governor, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “This is not a guy who avoids controversy. But he’s very skilled in choosing what issues he wants to play up and what he wants to play down.”
He was also careful to frame other policy positions in the most positive light for the conservative audience in Iowa.
One of his biggest applause lines was his mention that Wisconsin requires photo identification before voting. That's true, but Walker didn't mention that the requirement has been blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court and may never be enforced.
Walker boasted about the "big and bold" tax cuts on his watch—$2 billion in savings for individuals and businesses—without mentioning the projected $2.2 billion budget shortfall Wisconsin faces in the coming two years.
Walker's verbal gymnastics on shouldn't be a revelation. He's had plenty of practice refining how to sell his positions: Walker was the first Republican to be elected Milwaukee's county executive, and he's on the verge of launching his fourth campaign in five years since he was first elected governor in 2010. Walker will be in Washington on Friday to address the American Action Forum, which describes itself as a center-right policy institute.
Still, the critiques of his potential candidacy that have focused on his lack of stage presence shouldn't be dismissed, either. While the 47-year-old has a fair, if not convincing, argument for why he should be taken seriously as a Republican candidate for the White House, that premise is lost if he can’t convince an audience to stop searching for sleepy-face emojis on their mobile phones instead of listening to what he’s saying.
By his own admission, Walker's delivery can sometimes be a problem, yet he's worked hard to shift that narrative. “I’d rather be called boring and bland over corrupt, ignorant or even dumb, given some of the usual things the media loves tossing around,” Walker conservative radio host Charlie Sykes on Wednesday.
But as his Iowa speech demonstrated, a fix for that problem may be closer than many assume.
"Scott Walker is about two inches away from entering the top tier of candidates," says Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. The question is "if he can overcome his occasional lack of enthusiasm."
Castellanos praised Walker for "adding a few miles per hour to his fastball" in Iowa. But the speech also revealed some of Walker's less recognized public skills. For example, religion wasn't a focus in the speech, but Walker dropped several subtle references for Iowa's evangelical voting bloc: He thanked the crowd for their prayers during the recall, mentioned his preacher father and ended by telling the crowd that we "can have our own American revival."
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Walker also showed one of his other skills: avoiding any topics that are off-message. Asked whether he supports federal requirements to buy fuels made from corn, soybean and other products—a significant issue just over the border in Iowa—Walker took a pass. "That's something that should I be a candidate in the future, I probably would have to take a stand on that," he said, according to WisPolitics.com.
In June, Walker ducked questions about the state's ban on same-sex marriage being overturned, saying, "Voters don't talk to me about that." In 2012, he declined to comment about a bill aimed at repealing a pay-equity law and then quietly signed it into law.
Whether that would withstand the scrutiny of a national campaign remains to be seen.
"I'm not negative about him, but I just look at what happened to Pawlenty," Steve Roberts, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman said comparing Walker to the former Minnesota governor who sputtered out in the last Republican nomination race. "He's a hero, but whether that is enough to take him to the next level is an open question."