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Flummoxed Scott Walker Returns to Unions

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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What does Scott Walker do now?

The Wisconsin governor's support in Iowa has collapsed. The strategic path he had envisioned, in which he would consolidate the right flank of the Republican Party and drive on Jeb Bush's (teetering?) stronghold in the party's corporate suites, has been blown to pieces. Walker's reputation has been damaged, perhaps irreparably, due to his adoption of "three different sides of two-sided issues on a couple of different occasions," as a former chief of staff to Iowa's Republican governor told Politico.

Walker's campaign was founded on a clear, concise message well-suited to a testosterone heavy Republican electorate in a nasty mood: Walker fights. And he wins. It was a shrewd way to remind voters of the one thing they might have heard about Walker -- his spectacularly combative tenure as governor -- while differentiating him from a field that, pre-Trumpmania, was populated by fighters with little to show for it (Ted Cruz) and winners who weren't much known for fighting (Jeb Bush).

Then Trump commandeered the primary -- and continued to hold it. As everyone knows, Trump is a huge winner. And the best fighter. And that's proved to be a big problem for Walker.

In his first term in Wisconsin, Walker limited public workers' right to collective bargaining. The conflict immediately became his calling card with Republican donors and activists, and his victory over public unions, a key part of the Democratic coalition, significantly weakened them.

Two National Review writers recently called Walker's triumph over public unions "the most high-profile conservative political and policy success of the Obama era." If you stop for a moment and scan the vast expanse of the nation and its politics, you realize just what a damning admission that is. Conservative activists and business owners may hate unions and delight in their destruction. But most Americans don't consider unions, private or public, a dire threat to the nation -- unless they're concerned that the half-century slide in union power has left workers incapable of commanding higher wages. Indeed, Americans' approval of labor unions has been on the rise, hitting 58 percent in an August Gallup survey -- the highest rating for unions since 2008. Even 42 percent of Republicans said they approved of unions, with 18 percent saying they would like unions to have more influence.

Walker has now dragged unnamed "union bosses" -- who, in 2015, would actually recognize their names? -- out for another flogging. Instead of overhauling his anti-union message, which would pose clear risks to a candidate increasingly deemed inconstant, Walker is re-emphasizing it, highlighting a plan to clobber unions wherever they still draw breath. As president, he promised this week, he would "eliminate big-government unions" and spread anti-union "right to work" law nationwide. For good measure, he'd also eliminate the National Labor Relations Board.

You can see the appeal of this among certain voters who begrudge both the federal government and its disproportionately black workforce. Trouble is, in a primary in which the front-runner has promised to round up millions of (largely Hispanic) undocumented immigrants, Walker's anti-union crusade no longer sounds especially bold, and the pain he promises to inflict on a Democratic constituency no longer seems especially meaningful, or even sufficiently mean. In a similar vein, Walker has recently taken to saying that he'll "wreak havoc" in Washington. But if havoc is your game, you'll lose to Trump every time.

Walker's troubles aren't entirely due to Trump. On several occasions, Walker gave muddled or conflicting answers to policy questions. He began to look like a second-stringer even before Trump took the field. "I'm the last person who's going to underestimate him," said Paul Maslin, a Wisconsin-based Democratic pollster who was on the losing end of fights with Walker. "He understood his context in Wisconsin very well. I don't know if he was ever talented enough to take this national stage."

Walker may have no recourse but patience, waiting until Trump finally unravels, or the party, in all its dreamy, conflicted dysfunction, manages to dislodge him from the lead. But even then, other candidates, perhaps more skillful than Walker, are poised to capitalize. In the dark night of the Republican primary, where immigrants and Clintons cast shadows on the wall, a solemn vow to strip clerical workers of union benefits may not be a ticket to the top.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net