The Pawlenty Paradox and the Walker Conundrum

by Peter Spiliakos

How does Scott Walker fail to win in a party that nominated Mitt Romney? You could ask the same thing about Pawlenty.

Pawlenty and Walker should have been better fits for the national Republican nominating electorate than Romney. By any reasonable measure, Walker and Pawlenty had gubernatorial records well to the right of Romney. The electorates of Wisconsin and Minnesota were somewhat to the right of Massachusetts. Walker and Pawlenty should have had a better understanding than Romney of the preferences and temperament of the national Republican nominating electorate.

But they didn’t. They seemed to talk at Republican voters instead of listening to them. Pawlenty seemed to think that GOP voters wanted to hear jokes about domestic violence. Walker went from advocating upfront legalization of unauthorized immigrants, a path to citizenship, and increased low-skill immigration (along with scorning improved immigration enforcement), to pretending to want to build a wall, reduce future immigration, and even end birthright citizenship.

What Pawlenty and Walker had in common was that neither seemed to be listening to conservative Republican primary voters. They seemed to hearing about how to manipulate those voters from consultants and donors who despised the actual Republican electorate. It turns out that those voters were less dumb than the donors and consultants (and Walker and Pawlenty) assumed. Walker went off cluelessly into that good night by saying that the weakly performing candidates should drop out so that the Republican Party can unite behind an optimistic alternative to Trump.

That is nonsense. Trump is a symptom, and he will be gone soon enough. The disease is a party establishment that does not understand – and does not care to understand its own voters. It treats those voters as either a menace to be defeated, or a barbarian horde to be recruited. (Walker managed to do both in the course of his campaign.) Then, the establishment politicians wonder why they are distrusted and hated.

So how did Romney – a liberal Republican governor of a Democratic state – succeed where Walker and Pawlenty failed? One reason is that Romney listened to Republican voters and made an effort to articulate their principles and priorities. Romney didn’t always hit the mark, but unlike Walker and Pawlenty, he made and honest effort to be the fake conservative that Republican voters want.

Here is what I wrote about Romney a while back:

Romney wasn’t a natural politician and he wasn’t an ideological conservative, but he worked very hard, for a very long time, studying how to win the acquiescence (if not the enthusiastic support) of the party’s base. He never became a natural. A natural would never have called himself “severely conservative.” But he generally knew what buttons to push. His debate answers on Romneycare were beautifully constructed to soothe his audience by playing to their lower-spending, lower-tax, federalist, and localist beliefs.

I think it holds up pretty well. 

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.