West Palm Beach – Republicans are seeing two versions of Scott Walker: the one who showed up Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference looking every bit the man who has slayed Wisconsin’s public-unions and delivered a boffo performance from the stage.
The 200-plus donors assembled Saturday at the Club for Growth’s winter conference were eager to see that Scott Walker. Instead, they got the Walker who is shaky, unsure of himself, and hazy on policy details.
The takeaway from his speech before this libertarian-leaning crowd came, oddly enough, on foreign policy, when at the close of Walker’s presentation, moderator Frayda Levin, a Club board member and supporter of Kentucky senator Rand Paul in the 2016 race, came charging at him. At a recent meeting in New York, she said, “the feedback was that you were not prepared to speak about foreign policy.” Walker responded that, in fact, several media reports had indicated he was quite prepared, and by ticking off a list of those who’d recently briefed him on international affairs, people like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Elliott Abrams as well as scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution.
The Wisconsin governor also said that experience in the realm of foreign policy is inconsequential, that it’s leadership that matters. To wit, he said that the “most consequential foreign-policy decision” of his lifetime was Reagan’s 1981 firing of 11,000 air-traffic controllers.
“It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world,” he said, “that we wouldn’t be messed with.”
In his prepared remarks, which preceded a question-and-answer session with Levin, Walker rushed through a 25-minute speech focused on economic policy. Voters, he said, don’t care much about the social issues that have gotten Republican candidates into so much trouble in recent elections. “We need somebody focused on economic and fiscal issues,” Walker said.
It was a fine message to a crowd that cares primarily about those fiscal issues. But on some of the Club’s most cherished causes, such as the abolition of the Export-Import Bank, a federally authorized institution that hands out loans to preferred entities, Walker was shaky. It took him several minutes to say that he opposes the reauthorization of the bank. “I mentioned the tax code, make it fair and simple,” he began. It was a non sequitur.
Then there was Dodd-Frank, President Obama’s response to the financial crisis, widely considered a regulatory monstrosity by the right. Again, Walker fell back on a mealy-mouthed answer about paring down the tax and regulatory codes. It wasn’t good enough for Levin. “That was more of a generalized answer about government,” she said, “but you have some of your constituents here who have just been audited, had a Dodd-Frank audit . . . this has taken a huge toll on the community banks. Are you just, to be honest, not that aware of what’s happening with Dodd Frank?” Walker said the problem is not just Dodd Frank, but the “entire regulatory environment” and promised “a whole series of plans” should he run for president.
It is Walker’s impressive accomplishments in purple Wisconsin, and his repeated legislative and electoral victories there that have conservative crowds so positively disposed toward him. He has vanquished the state’s public-sector unions and is about to pass right-to-work legislation, an issue with tremendous appeal to the economic hawks at the Club for Growth. With everybody eager to be impressed, Walker’s performance nationally, unlike his performance in Wisconsin, is inconsistent.
His remarks on Saturday come on the heels of a strong performance at CPAC and what many considered a handful of rookie stumbles: a botched response to a question about President Obama’s religion and to an allegation from former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani about the president’s patriotism.
Walker arrived at the ritzy Breakers hotel with large entourage and, though he dodged a question on account of his not yet being a formal candidate, it’s clear that day will soon come. Whether Walker makes himself ready for primetime by then will determine the course of his candidacy.