The Commander-in-Chief Test for Scott Walker and Rivals: Not Being Obama

The Republicans rarely mention Hillary Clinton at the South Carolina cattle call.

Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, pauses while speaking the the media during the South Carolina Freedom Summit hosted by Citizens United and Congressman Jeff Duncan in Greenville, South Carolina, U.S., on Saturday, May 9, 2015.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In his first weeks as a presidential front-runner, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sometimes said that he could take on the Islamic State because he'd been tough enough to take on unions. After some pushback and mockery, he dropped that line. Saturday morning, at the South Carolina Freedom Summit in Greenville, Walker adopted the pose of a concerned citizen, worried about terrorism coming home.

“As a governor, it's not something I deal with day in and day out, but it's increasingly becoming a focus because when I think about safety I think about my own children,” he said. “When I watch a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage, when I see Christians from Egypt or elsewhere around the world shot or beheaded just because of their faith, that's something I feel right here.” He pointed to his chest. “That's something I feel in my heart.”

Walker, who spent much of his speech repeating the story of his gubernatorial battles in Wisconsin, is polling at the front of the pack of half-dozen governors or former governors likely running for the Republican presidential nomination. Republican voters often tell pollsters that they'd prefer a governor to a senator when picking their nominee. At the summit, when messaging guru Frank Luntz surveyed the audience on that question, the vast majority of people agreed with that.

The challenge Walker was wrestling with was how to campaign in a foreign policy election without a foreign policy background—and against a group of senators with some built-in credibility. Walker's closest rival, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, has stumbled into news cycles over the advice former Secretary of State James Baker and former President George W. Bush have given him.

Bush did not travel to Greenville, but Walker's other gubernatorial rivals took turns describing their toughness in the face of foreign threats. In each case, they contrasted their own national-greatness approach with the Obama administration's perceived weakness. In one case, they could actually tell a story about staring down the president when he refused to act. They rarely mentioned the likely Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by name. She was almost an afterthought in an argument about the Obama years.

“Homeland security starts with border security,” said former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who dropped out before the 2012 primary but is considering a 2016 bid. “America has the right to defend its borders. I told the president last summer: If you won’t secure the border, Texas will. That’s when I deployed the Texas National Guard to the border, to stop the drug-trafficking and gun-running of these drug cartels and these trans-national gangs.” It was a lesson to take onto the world stage. “The great lesson of history is that strength and resolve bring about peace and order, and that weakness and vacillation leads to chaos and conflict.”

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told the audience that “radical Islamic terrorism” was a threat to their existence, and that “we've got a president who doesn't even want to use those words,” even as Americans rise up to fight it.

“The recent events in Garland, Texas, show us that this threat is in our country,” said Jindal. “I don't know about you, but I was glad that those police were there to send those terrorists to the afterlife. It got me thinking maybe Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina—maybe those aren't the best places [to plot attacks]. In our states, we think gun control means aiming what you're hitting at.”

Jindal used his speech to re-litigate the coverage of his foreign policy junket to London. “Back in January,” he said, “I gave a speech that the left just got upset about.” He did not go into detail about how he warned that pliant Muslim leaders had allowed neighborhoods to become lawless “no-go zones.” He said he'd told the truth that the media couldn't handle.

“It is not racist, it is not anti-Muslim, to demand that these leaders condemn these terrorists, these thugs, these evil, evil leaders,” said Jindal, referring to peaceful imams. “By name, they've got to condemn these individuals and say that these are no martyrs. They are going straight to hell, where they belong.”

Walker trained more of his criticism on President Barack Obama himself. His successor, said Walker, needs “the courage to look the American people in the eye and tell them what is not easy to say. This might not take a day. This might not take a week, a month, or even a year. But I gotta tell ya, it's not a matter of if another attempt is made to attack American soil. It's a matter of when.”

Yet the senators already running for president talked about foreign policy with a bit more detail and ease, and more stories of directly opposing the Obama administration. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum took credit for the sanctions that both parties now favored on Iran. Texas Senator Ted Cruz described the sorrow he felt for victims of the Ford Hood shooting, and how he'd fought for their recognition after the Obama administration refused to consider it an act of Islamic terrorism. Cruz even had a better line than Jindal about the cop who took out the Garland killers.

“Thankfully,” said Cruz, “one police officer helped them meet their virgins.”

In a conversation with reporters, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton said that the governors/senators framework wasn't particularly important in judging who had foreign policy credibility. “None of the prospective candidates, with the exception of yours truly, have any serious experience at senior levels of the executive branch of the federal government,” said Bolton. “That's what the president's the head of. So that would be nice, but there are other ways you can get there, as Ronald Reagan proved.”

Much of Walker's speech, delivered with no podium and no notes, closely resembled the one that had done him good at Iowa's version of the Freedom Summit. As in Iowa, he said he “talked so much about taxes” because of the insights he'd gotten from shopping at Kohl's, the big-box store that charges low prices and makes its profit on volume. He added that he'd shared this folksy insight with Art Laffer, the economist credited with the simple chart that convinced Republicans that lower taxes can increase revenue.

“They call it the Laffer curve,” said Walker. “I said, Art, I love ya, but I call it the Kohl's curve now.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted former Ambassador John Bolton in the 14th paragraph.

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