Politics & Policy

Scott Walker’s Sudden Right Turn on Social Issues

(Joe Raedle/Getty)

On a day when most Republican White House hopefuls offered rote responses to the Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision, Scott Walker broke dramatically from the mold.

In a telling shift for a politician who’s spent recent years carefully avoiding social issues, the Wisconsin governor called for a federal constitutional amendment prohibiting the federal government from defining marriage. The abrupt change may indicate that Walker is aware of the lingering doubts social conservatives hold about his candidacy, and that his campaign is moving to appease the all-important Evangelical wing of the GOP.

“I believe this Supreme Court decision is a grave mistake,” Walker said Friday, in a statement released by his Our American Revival PAC. “As a result of this decision, the only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the US Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage.”

Eight months ago Walker was much more conciliatory. After Wisconsin’s law prohibiting the recognition of gay marriage was struck down in federal court and an appeal to the Supreme Court was denied last October, the governor essentially shrugged off the defeat. And he openly rejected the notion that the Constitution should be amended to address the issue. “I think it’s resolved,” he said at the time. His apathy angered the state’s Evangelicals and prompted skepticism from national leaders of the social-conservative movement.

‘The only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the US Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage.’

That skepticism grew after Walker, seeking reelection in a purple state, softened his message on abortion. In an ad released at the height of Wisconsin’s gubernatorial election last fall, Walker said he was pro-life, but supported legislation that “leaves the final decision between a woman and her doctor.” He had previously signed strict pro-life legislation into state law, and some social conservatives blasted the ad’s shift in tone when it went viral nationally in March. “Claiming you are impotent to act on your core principles is neither true nor wise,” said Frank Cannon, president of the conservative group American Principles.

Since becoming governor in 2010, Walker has been deliberately ambiguous in his public statements on social issues. When a reporter asked him for his position on same-sex marriage after a court overturned Wisconsin’s law last June, he declined to take a stand one way or the other. “It really doesn’t matter what I think now,” he said. “I don’t comment on everything out there.” In 2013 he called the idea that government should get out of marriage altogether “a solid argument,” albeit one he couldn’t yet support. That same year he said social issues “shouldn’t be the centerpiece” of political campaigns, suggesting that such issues tend to get Republicans in trouble. He echoed that sentiment at a Club for Growth meeting in February. “In the case of social issues, there are beliefs that I have, and I’m not going to hide them,” he said. “But I was elected as the governor to focus on the economic and fiscal crisis my state faced. . . . I believe this country needs someone focused on economic and fiscal issues and, increasingly, safety.”

So why is the governor now ignoring his own advice, staking out a controversial position that puts him to the right of his closest Republican rivals on a big-ticket issue? The Walker team takes issue with the premise of the question.

“Governor Walker has always held a strong position that marriage is between a man and a woman,” says AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for his PAC. She points to votes he took as far back as 1997 to prevent recognition of gay marriage in Wisconsin, noting that he then defended the law in the court system as governor.

#related#“The governor has always believed that this is a state issue and that states should be making this decision,” she says.

That may be true, but prominent social conservatives aren’t buying it. “He’s not well known within Washington, D.C., with social-conservative leaders,” said Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, in a May interview with Politico. “I think people are wondering, ‘Where does he stand.’”

“He cannot campaign in Iowa and South Carolina and not talk about the issues of life and marriage,” Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, also said in May. “And even if it appears that he’s not talking about it, he’s done.”

He’s certainly talking about it now. Though Walker’s proposed federal amendment wouldn’t prevent states from recognizing gay marriage — it would leave the choice up to them — it’s still a prominent and proactive take for a governor who has carefully avoided being pinned down on social issues for years.

Perhaps Walker realizes that if he wants to win in Iowa — a state that broke for Evangelical favorites Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in the last two cycles — he’ll have to start paying social conservatives a little more attention.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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