Politics & Policy

The Walker Boomlet

Scott Walker isn’t addressing the principal issue in the 2016 election.

It’s been a good week for Governor Scott Walker. He received rave media reviews for his speech at Steve King’s Iowa Freedom Fest.

An unnamed “Republican Party observer” informed the Washington Times that Walker was a smash in Iowa, proving his appeal to all parts of the conservative coalition.

Slate columnist Jamelle Bouie even speculated that the Kochs’ $889 billion network might act as a counter-establishment to the Bush and Romney machines, and “give Walker better ground to stand on. He can run an insurgent campaign, and unlike Mike Huckabee in the 2008 race, he won’t run out of cash. Suddenly, there’s a real alternative to the original consensus candidate . . . ”

Marco Rubio, it turns out, won the informal straw poll of Koch-networked donors at the Ritz-Carlton in Rancho Mirage, Calif., according to Politico, but, no matter, the Walker Boomlet was on.

When I analyze speeches by would-be presidents I am looking for two things: Is the candidate in touch with American voters’ principal economic pain?  Does he or she understand that the big problem the middle class faces is the declining standard of living, caused by the one-two punch of wage stagnation and mild but persistent inflation?

Before you can provide a plausible answer, you have to get the diagnosis right.  At this stage it is for me the first and most important sign of potential political success against the Democrats.

For me, in other words, this issue functions as a girl’s beauty did for Lorelei Lee: “It isn’t everything. But my goodness it certainly helps!”

Senator Rick Santorum focused on the problem with laser-like intensity, although possibly so much so that he would fail to appeal to the upwardly mobile suburbanites he and other GOP candidates need to grasp. 

Governor Mike Huckabee at least made a reference to it, arguing that he’s for a maximum wage, not a minimum wage.

Senator Ted Cruz gave a stirring speech painting himself as a Winston Churchill, that lion in winter, “a voice against the darkness sweeping the globe” — “We fear for our children. We fear for our grandchildren” — but he didn’t say much about why (apart from Islamic terrorism and threats to religious liberty). The “miracle of America” he told us, is that “if you’re a single mom waiting tables, you can do anything . . . no country in the history of the world has allowed so many millions with nothing to come and seek the unlimited dreams of their potential.”

Governor Rick Perry came out swinging, calling for “a pro-growth agenda that returns jobs from overseas, increases wages, and allows the middle-class families to once again climb the ladder of success after a lost decade of economic decline.”

Governor Chris Christie, in terms of naming the problem, hit the ball out of the park: “In 2011, 2012, and 2013, the real median household income in this country was less than $52,000 . . . with no increase at all since 1993 to 1995. The average American family is living just about as well as it did before our friend Al Gore invented the internet. . . . There is economic stagnation in this country, but there is also an overwhelming feeling that it is just not possible in your family to get ahead . . . no matter how hard you work.”

Walker? Politically speaking I would give his speech at best a gentleman’s C. For all his talk of going big and going bold, he spent very little time suggesting that he is in touch with what Americans are worried about. His rhetoric, even in Wisconsin, focused on the hit voters were taking from double-digit increases in property taxes. I waited and listened for Walker to define the economic problems ordinary Americans face or to suggest solutions, and this sentence is about as close as he got: “We are going to promote policies that promote and defend hard work in this country once again. We need to promote policies that open the door to opportunity to live the American Dream.”  That is thin gruel.

He spent at least three-quarters of his time talking about Wisconsin and his record — something to be proud of to be sure, but it left us with little understanding of what he would do for us.  Reduce our property taxes?  Bust teachers unions? 

To me his dwelling on his Wisconsin troubles and triumphs put him close to the roadblock that Rudy Giuliani ran into when he dwelt on his triumphs as mayor of New York during his 2008 presidential bid: He sounds like he’s running for governor, not president.

He’s big, he’s bold, but he is both vague and vaguely out of touch.

It is very early yet, and it is just one speech. But offering a pathway to resolve middle-class economic pain is the key to victory in 2016. And the first step is to show you know what it is.

— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.

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