Politics & Policy

Scott Walker: What Went Wrong?

Walker launches in campaign in Waukesha, Wisc., in July. (Scott Olson/Getty)
And how he can he make it right.

In January, when Scott Walker gave a speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit that shot him to the top of the polls, he was pushing at an open door. There was so much goodwill for him among conservatives that a merely creditable performance would probably have created a surge of support — and it did. On the strength of one good-but-not-great speech, he instantly became the hottest thing in Republican politics.

Fans of Donald Trump like to say of their man, “He fights,” and if there was one thing conservatives knew about Scott Walker, it was that he had fought and won.

Walker’s victorious battle with Wisconsin’s public-sector unions, which at one point had Democratic legislators fleeing to a motel in neighboring Illinois to prevent a vote on his reform bill, and which famously precipitated mass protests and a failed recall, was the most high-profile conservative political and policy success of the Obama era.

Walker entered the presidential campaign with that notch in his belt, and without the obvious liabilities of other highly touted candidates. Marco Rubio had badly hurt himself on immigration; Jeb Bush hadn’t run for office in more than a decade and had work to do to win over skeptical conservatives; Ted Cruz faced doubts about his electability.

Such was Walker’s strength that on the eve of the first Republican debate, even after he had hurt himself with a series of miscues in preceding months, a Gallup survey found that just 7 percent of GOP voters had an unfavorable view of him.

RELATED: An Unfiltered Interview with Scott Walker

Insiders, too, were favorably disposed toward Walker. He’s a good political strategist, and in private, he showed a shrewd understanding of how he had prevailed in Wisconsin. He explained that the key had been winning over a small portion of voters who didn’t share his policy goals, but disapproved of the tactics of his opponents, admired his stalwartness, and were willing to give him a chance.

All of this makes the current, reduced state of Walker’s campaign remarkable. The rise of Donald Trump has hurt him, perhaps more than any other candidate. As the more serious phase of the nomination battle kicks off, he has seen his erstwhile Iowa lead collapse. He’s fallen all the way back to fourth in the state’s Real Clear Politics average, which he led as recently as mid-July. He’s flirting with also-ran status in national polls. And his reputation for authenticity has taken a hit based on policy shifts, both real and perceived.

Now, some formerly admiring political insiders describe his campaign as “dreadful” and “completely unworthy of Scott Walker,” and wonder if he can recover.

If there was one thing conservatives knew about Scott Walker it was that he had fought and won.

What happened? Unaffiliated political strategists, operatives from rival campaigns, and Walker allies — almost all of whom requested anonymity to speak frankly — describe a number of challenges and mistakes. Walker’s rise came so early that he didn’t yet have a campaign in place and hadn’t fully studied up on national issues, and it showed. His Iowa bounce played into a key strategic decision to make the Hawkeye State central to his campaign, and relatedly, to compete directly for the Right of the party, which for him required changes in tone and position. Walker is a conservative but not a fire-breather. That made his attempt to straddle the grassroots and the establishment — which would have been difficult for any politician — harder to pull off.

Above all, the past few months have amplified questions about whether Walker’s campaign and, more importantly, the candidate himself are built to thrive on a stage larger and less forgiving than Wisconsin. Political observers had long worried about whether he had the charisma to succeed in a presidential contest. Now, there are doubts about his substance. At times, the candidate and his operation have appeared accident-prone and politically immature.

Of course, it’s still early. The old baseball cliché that you are never as good as you seem when you’re winning and never as bad as you seem when you’re losing often applies to politics. And Walker, like all of the candidates this year, has been buffeted by an unexpected force. No one would have guessed that the candidate who talks of buying affordable shirts at Kohl’s and campaigns at Harley-Davidson outlets would get shoved aside in Iowa by a loudmouthed billionaire who brags about his incredible wealth and woos voters by taking their children for rides in his helicopter.

Walker can still come back — his campaign and his super PAC are planning to reset in the coming weeks — but it will be made harder by what’s happened over the last eight months.

Walker at a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty)

“It’s like you’re talking to your uncle”

When Walker shot to the top of the polls in Iowa, his key staffers had yet to decamp to Wisconsin and he had yet to hire chief domestic- or foreign-policy advisers. In the normal course of things, he might have spent 2014 preparing for a national race, but he had had to win what initially seemed a very tough re-election campaign instead. Once returned to office, he was consumed by a budget battle that didn’t come to a close until days before he officially launched his presidential campaign in mid-July.

As a result, the first national impression Walker made, days after his speech in Iowa, was of a man overmatched on questions of substance.

His first major interview after the speech was with ABC News’s Martha Raddatz, the foreign policy–oriented journalist who was guest-hosting This Week with George Stephanopoulos. She asked Walker what he’d do about Syria and pushed him beyond blaming President Obama for issuing empty threats. Walker was clearly at sea. He said again and again that we have to have an “aggressive strategy,” without outlining what that might be, and, by the end of his answer, he seemed to have inadvertently endorsed the possibility of U.S. ground troops in Syria.

RELATED: Scott Walker Is His Own Best Political Operative, and That’s a Problem

A couple of weeks later, Walker went to New York as the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by the prominent supply-siders Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore, part of a series of events the two held for presidential candidates. Given the intense interest in Walker, the dinner was overbooked. Dozens of journalists, politicos, and donors packed a room at the 21 Club. Rudy Giuliani memorably blew up the dinner when he arrived to declare that the president doesn’t love his country. But the main event was supposed to be Walker, who was fluid on Wisconsin-related matters but didn’t say anything interesting or specific or even particularly well-informed on national issues.

It became a pattern. “The issues that you would know as a governor he knows extremely well,” says one policy maven who has worked with the campaign, “but the related federal issues, it’s like talking to your uncle. And that’s just preparation; clearly he can do it.”

“He can’t out-Cruz Cruz”

The bump Walker initially got in Iowa made him look strong there, and as an evangelical with a low-key, Midwestern personality who spent the formative years of his childhood in the state before becoming governor of an adjoining one, he seemed a natural fit. If he won Iowa, he would be the most serious candidate to take the caucuses since George W. Bush in 2000. So Iowa was alluring, but it has also proven, according to many observers, a bit of a trap.

Early poll numbers in Iowa are deceiving, and the state tends to favor insurgent, socially conservative candidates. Seduced by his January lead, Walker became convinced he had to tack right to consolidate it — something he hasn’t always done gracefully.

RELATED: Scott Walker Is Setting Expectations High

An ex-staffer to former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, whose presidential campaign ended in August 2011 after he lost a misbegotten Iowa war with Michele Bachmann, says the lesson is that Iowa is a long game. “Iowa voters are very, very slow to decide, very slow to commit,” the staffer says. “And when you’re building a campaign that is primarily based on winning in Iowa, you have to have a tremendous amount of discipline and patience. Because Iowa is not won the summer before, it’s won the week before the caucuses, as Huckabee showed in ’08 and Santorum showed in ’12.”

Bob Vander Plaats, a key Iowa social conservative who is yet to endorse a candidate, recalls a conversation during the heady days of Walker’s rise. “One of his people called me,” he says, “and said how excited they were, and I said ‘I don’t wanna douse your excitement, but I don’t think you want to be ahead this early.’”

To many observers, Walker has seemed overeager to compete for the conservative grassroots, in large part to try to cement his standing in Iowa.

To many observers, Walker has seemed overeager to compete for the conservative grassroots, in large part to try to cement his standing in Iowa. He has certainly shifted the emphasis if not the substance of several of his positions. He had been an utterly conventional supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, then abandoned it. When a Wisconsin gay-marriage ban was struck down last year, he was perfectly willing to admit defeat and said plainly that he didn’t want to discuss the issue. After this year’s Supreme Court decision, he came out for a constitutional amendment that he didn’t appear very comfortable defending.

But what seemed to some his most flagrant about-face was on the Renewable Fuel Standard, a sacred cow among Iowa voters. In 2006, Walker opposed an ethanol mandate in Wisconsin and said that “fiscal conservatives” should do the same. But at an agricultural summit in Des Moines earlier this year, he told Iowans that while he would like to do away with the RFS eventually, he supports it for the time being.

#related#Then, he denied there was any inconsistency in his position. “I never said anything about federal. I said I opposed a mandate on ethanol in Wisconsin,” he said. “What I’ve said here in Iowa is because it’s already in place, I thought that the Renewable Fuel Standard should stay in place as a transition is given and they should phase it out within two years.” In fact, Walker’s 2006 statement denounced both state and federal mandates.

The Walker campaign disputes that he has made any big shifts during the campaign, except on immigration.

RELATED: Walker’s Iowa Expectations Game

The schematic of competing “lanes” in the GOP nomination fight can be overly simplistic, but Walker’s largely Iowa-driven shifts have placed him in the insurgent lane more than anyone would have expected. They have also put him in direct competition with candidates who are more naturally suited to that role. “He’s not going to out-Cruz Cruz,” says a Republican strategist who is neutral in the 2016 race. His attempts to do so, meanwhile, have made him less appealing to the establishment.

“He made a strategic error that’s fairly fundamental,” argues a strategist for one rival candidate. “What happened to Walker is that he started off fairly well-positioned, with a good story to tell about his record in Wisconsin, but he moved very far to the right, where he ran into other candidates who were more appealing to that audience. . . . He didn’t look like the best guy to that audience in comparison to those alternatives, and by making that move he abandoned the center of the Republican electorate, so now he’s left with neither the center nor the right.”

(Win McNamee/Getty)

“There’s Not a Flip Out There”

This dynamic has played out especially on immigration, an issue on which Walker has pleased no one. It is a microcosm of his campaign’s larger strategic problem.

Walker had initially seemed inclined to continue to back comprehensive immigration reform, as he always had. When National Review ran a story on his past support for an amnesty, his campaign reacted in fury. It denied that a resolution he signed as Milwaukee County executive in 2002, which called for “greater opportunity for undocumented working immigrants to obtain legal residency in the United States,” amounted to an endorsement of amnesty. He had signed multiple resolutions in support of the amnesty legislation proposed during the Bush years.

At the February dinner hosted by Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore, Walker was vague on immigration, but gave no indication that he was a hawk. Given how emotionally charged and important the issue of immigration is to the conservative grassroots, particularly in Iowa, it would have been a high-risk gambit for Walker to stick to his relatively moderate stance. What ensued was a shift so awkward it was often painful to watch.

#share#On Fox News Sunday in early March, Walker admitted that he was changing his position. At other times, he unconvincingly argued that, actually, his views had never changed. “There’s not a flip out there,” he told Bret Baier in May. “A flip would be somebody who voted on something and did something different.”

Walker had embarked on a new course on immigration in April. After consulting with Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, the most effective restrictionist in Congress, he adopted the Sessions line that American workers should be the first consideration in immigration policy. But he never articulated what this would mean as a policy matter.

Floating the sentiment was enough to earn the ire of the Left, and plenty of people on the right, but the governor never capitalized on it. When the Wall Street Journal rapped Walker in late April, he seemed to lose any enthusiasm for bringing more fully developed, Sessions-style thinking on immigration onto the presidential stage. Given the hay that Trump has been able to make with his own controversial statements on the issue, it seems in retrospect that Walker missed an opportunity to set himself apart from the rest of the field.

Thus, several months into his campaign, Walker had disappointed people on both sides of the immigration debate. Perhaps more important, he had convinced them that he wasn’t steady under fire, which is the quality that made him alluring in the first place. And then Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Towers to announce his presidential bid in mid-June, and Walker was suddenly faced with a whole new set of problems.

Walker meets the press in Chicago in July. (Scott Olson/Getty)

“There’s no coherent communications strategy”

For Walker, it was an August of Trump, entanglements in unhelpful controversies, and a so-so debate.

It’s an open question which candidate has been most thrown off by the ascendancy of the real-estate mogul, but neither Jeb Bush nor Walker have acquitted themselves well. Bush at least has finally settled into a clear tactic of punching back at Trump. Walker has neither hit Trump consistently nor maintained his equilibrium. Rather, he has alternately pushed back against Trump’s digs at his record in Wisconsin and aped some of his populist rumblings, most notably on birthright citizenship. Walker’s indecisive response to Trump’s rise has only exacerbated his campaign’s identity problems.

RELATED: On Taxes, Walker Has Wisely Jettisoned the Supply-Side Orthodoxy

In mid-August, Trump released a six-page immigration plan that included a proposal to end birthright citizenship. The following week, Walker appeared to tell MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, in the midst of a scrum at the Iowa State Fair, that he too wanted to put an end to the practice. The snafu overshadowed not only a successful appearance at the fair, in which Walker adeptly handled several rogue protesters trying to shout him down, but also the rollout of his well-received Obamacare-replacement plan. His campaign compounded the damage by refusing to clarify where he stood on the issue.

That was Monday. The controversy hung out there all week, and it took until Friday for Walker to say that he would not take a position on the issue. But even that did not end the matter. On Sunday, in another appearance on This Week, the governor said he was against changing the Constitution to end birthright citizenship.

Walker’s indecisive response to Trump’s rise has only exacerbated his campaign’s identity problems.

In this context, his calls for President Obama to cancel Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s upcoming state visit were inevitably interpreted as another attempt to channel some of Trump’s fist-pounding.

For its part, the Walker campaign rejects the idea that it has been reactive to Trump. “Most of the things we were doing and saying the past month were things we were going to do and say regardless of Trump,” a spokeswoman says.

Every campaign has its hiccups. The Walker team, though, has had a way of creating mini-fiascos. They follow a pattern in which clumsy statements from the candidate are often allowed to hang in the ether without clarification, and inquiries are either unanswered or treated with hostility.

Consider the Canadian border flap. It certainly sounded like Walker told NBC News’s Chuck Todd he would entertain the idea of building a fence on our Northern border. “That is a legitimate issue for us to look at,” he said. As political commentators across the spectrum mocked the candidate, his campaign stood by, and even dug in. The day of the interview, Walker tweeted: “Having a secure border is a legitimate concern for the safety of our nation.”

RELATED: Scott Walker’s Sudden Right Turn on Social Issues

It wasn’t until two days later that Walker appeared on Fox News and dismissed the controversy. “I mean, this is just a joke in terms of how people react to things,” he said. “I’ve never talked about a wall with the North. I’m certainly not now. That’s just what happens when things run amok.”

A veteran operative who is fond of Walker says his latest missteps are most disturbing. “It would have been difficult for them to be ready for the surge he got in January,” he says. “So I give him a pass on that.” What’s less forgivable, he believes, is “the continual bouncing along on the campaign trail, responding off-the-cuff in such an inopportune manner.” And he blasts the Walker camp’s response to Trump as “the hyperventilating reaction you’d get from someone not used to this stage.”

#share#A source who knows the governor well says the problem is, in part, Walker’s team has not pushed him to figure out what he thinks and what he’ll say on the key issues. “There’s no coherent communications strategy,” says the source.

This source also argues that Walker is simply bombarded with too many opinions. “There’s a lot of people in his ear, in his orbit, around the table, providing thoughts and opinions on different issues,” he says. “I think if you’re not a master of one, you’re a slave to all, and I think part of the issue right now is [his] being a slave to multiple opinions.”

On a more abstract level, Walker’s campaign slogan, “Unintimidated,” conveys an attitude rather than a vision. Unlike, say, Jeb Bush’s “Right to Rise,” or Marco Rubio’s “New American Century,” it does not serve as an overarching policy and messaging framework, and therefore a true North.

A memorable performance in August’s Fox News debate might have covered a multitude of communications sins. The Walker campaign saw it as an opportunity to allay concerns about whether the governor was ready to address national issues in a pressure-packed environment. They hoped a gaffe-free performance would do the trick, and the governor delivered one. But it wasn’t a strong showing. Walker spoke rapidly, perhaps from nerves, and faded into the background. He didn’t make any fatal missteps, but he did nothing to arrest his downward slide in the polls, either.

Walker at a campaign stop in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

“There’s never going to be another George W. Bush”

One official with a conservative organization says there were initially high expectations and a lot of enthusiasm for Walker’s candidacy “on paper.”

The question now is whether that potential can be actualized. Some political observers say they were more surprised by Walker’s early success than by his recent decline, arguing that a candidate who doesn’t have top-notch rhetorical skills and an instinctual knack for political theater simply will not thrive on the national stage.

“I always thought that Walker was not that strong because his presentation skills were so weak,” says a top adviser for another Republican candidate. “The presidential campaign rewards theatrical skills and presentation skills more, much more, than running for a statewide office.”

What had seemed a Walker strength — appealing to both wings of the party — may also turn out to be an obstacle. Certainly, he hasn’t negotiated the gap deftly so far.

What had seemed a Walker strength — appealing to both wings of the party — may also turn out to be an obstacle. Certainly, he hasn’t negotiated the gap deftly so far. “Walker has not been sure if he should run as a first-tier or a second-tier candidate,” says a neutral insider, noting that he’s oscillated between keeping his powder dry and making a lot of noise. “All of that has added up to a not very successful strategy,” he says.

Steve Deace, an influential Iowa talk-radio host who has endorsed Ted Cruz, credits Walker “with the best gubernatorial record of anyone in the history of the party.” But he argues that the governor has set an impossible task for himself. “You cannot straddle the gap between the grassroots and establishment,” he says, arguing that it is simply too wide now. “There’s never going to be another George W. Bush who unites the establishment with evangelicals.” Deace likens the party dynamic to the TV show Survivor, where there are invariably two tribes and one player who thinks he doesn’t have to pick a side — until he’s inevitably the first voted off the island because neither faction trusts him.

The biggest danger to Walker from the last several months is that he may have created an authenticity problem for himself. In this political environment, where unfiltered outsider candidates have been thriving, that would be disastrous.

RELATED: An Unfiltered Interview with Scott Walker

As a Midwestern governor who has a strong record but can’t figure out what faction of the party to appeal to, Walker invites comparisons to Pawlenty, who was widely expected to be a top-tier candidate in 2012 but wound up being one of the first to drop out when he was overtaken by the less serious but more charismatic Michele Bachmann.

“It seems he’s been affected the way Tim Pawlenty was affected,” Van Der Plaats says. “They both had good records, but seemed to be scripted by the consultants around them rather than what is really [them].”

If Walker’s initial entry into the fray generated more excitement and higher expectations, it was actually Pawlenty who had more experience in the national spotlight. He was on John McCain’s vice-presidential shortlist in 2008 and served as a top surrogate for the campaign. Two years later, he passed on a re-election bid in order to gear up for the presidential race. “He spent two years preparing to run for president, which meant doing a lot of the briefings,” says a former Pawlenty staffer.

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“There’s no question that having experience in dealing with national and international issues and dealing with them in national and international forums is helpful,” Pawlenty says. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be learned, doesn’t mean it can’t be absorbed in a reasonably short period of time.”

But Pawlenty dismisses any suggestion that Walker might suffer his fate with one word: money. Pawlenty dropped out when his campaign ran out of funds after the Iowa Straw Poll; he had no super PAC supporting his candidacy. Walker, he says, “has the financial infrastructure to not have his fortunes rise or fall based on one early moment in the campaign.” He can “extend the window of time where he can get a second or third look.”

Top donors to the Walker campaign and Walker staffers alike insist that, while they’re surprised by how the race is shaping up, they anticipated plenty of bumps in the road — and that they were no less optimistic on Labor Day than they were on Memorial Day.

(Scott Olson/Getty)

“Let Scott Walker be Scott Walker”

There is no doubt that Walker has time to make mid-course corrections. The volatility in the polls that made Walker’s lead so ephemeral means he can’t be counted out, since he could always bounce back up again. Republicans like him — his favorability rating among GOP voters remains high — and it’s not inconceivable he could still become the candidate who unites the party’s various factions. Of course, that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Van Der Plaats doesn’t count him out, but warns it’s always more difficult to recapture voters after they’ve left you. “Walker needs to keep his sea legs and regain that message, but if you ask Rick Perry and others who have lost leads here, it’s awfully hard to get back on top once you’ve fallen,” he says.

Walker’s flip-flops, real and perceived, have given rivals in both the insurgent and establishment wings potentially powerful fodder for attacks against him

On top of this, Walker’s flip-flops, real and perceived, have given rivals in both the insurgent and establishment wings potentially powerful fodder for attacks against him that they didn’t have in January.

The advice you’ll hear from neutral observers to the campaign is, “Let Scott Walker be Scott Walker.”

“He needs to set the agenda and stop chasing rabbits. He chases a lot of rabbits,” says an unaffiliated Republican strategist who counsels a return to basics. “He’s got to get back to who he is, a reformer who’s policy driven, and stop reacting and trying to work his way into the news cycle every day.” As a governor of a Midwestern state, he adds, “The image problem he was always going to have was being seen as provincial. He has to be bigger. A lot of what he’s done over the last two months has been diminishing.”

The Walker camp indeed hopes to get the governor back to talking about his record as the centerpiece of a reformist, anti-Washington narrative. His team believes it has a relatable candidate with genuine appeal to middle-class voters, one who has demonstrated toughness and resolve already and will do so again in the months of campaigning to come.

They’ve already begun a policy rollout. Although Walker’s Obamacare replacement was mostly ignored amid the Trump-induced madness, it won high marks from conservative experts. His subsequent foreign-policy address at the Citadel was more of a missed opportunity. At a venue where politicians have typically tried to demonstrate that they are foreign-policy visionaries, Walker instead delivered a ragged speech replete with jabs at his political opponents.

RELATED: Can’t-Do D.C. Republicans Need Can-Do Walker

The campaign has also unveiled a new phrase that seems transparently tailored to invoke a Trumpian, anti-establishment mood: “wreaking havoc.”

This week, Walker will give a speech at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater. Why Eureka? “Wreaking havoc on Washington has parallels to Reagan’s ‘drain the swamp’ mentality,” says a campaign source. At Eureka, the source says, Walker will “unveil a substantial change to the way Washington does business that has a direct connection to Walker’s results in Wisconsin.”

#related#Walker’s super PAC is on the air with ads trying to put the focus back on his Wisconsin record, which strategists say sets him apart from his rivals. “Our strategy is designed to make voters aware of Governor Walker’s conservative achievements and we’ve begun running ads that highlight his record — Act 10, balancing the budget, and cutting taxes,” says Brad Dayspring, one of the super PAC’s senior strategists. “It’s the depth of Governor Walker’s conservative record that separates and distinguishes him in this field.”

Time may be more limited than it seems. “You gotta do it sooner rather than later, the time is winding down and I think it’s important for people to realize that,” says the source who knows the governor well. An outside operative agrees with that assessment, arguing that Walker must get his numbers back up quickly because he has lost people who had been supporting him, something that hasn’t happened with most of his rivals.

At the beginning of the year, most people would have expected a reformist emphasis on his Wisconsin record to be Walker’s tack all along. Now Walker has to hope he can demonstrate the mastery that has so far eluded him, and realize what was almost universally considered his great promise just six months ago.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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