Walker’s Curious Debate Strategy
His strategy was to “largely ignore” Burke. That may have been a mistake.
Going into the first debate between Gov. Scott Walker and challenger Mary Burke, I expected Walker to wax her. Walker is famed for being able to give speeches without a teleprompter, he’s the most silver-tongued governor this state has seen since Republican Lee Sherman Dreyfus more than three decades ago, and he handily beat Tom Barrett in all those 2010 and 2012 debates.
Burke? She’s green as grass. As a reporter for the leftist Mother Jones wrote, in her early days of campaigning, “Burke looked wooden on TV, rehearsed and uncomfortable in front of crowds.” As late as September, he noted, “Burke spoke at a campaign fundraiser in a cavernous hall at Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery… She flubbed her applause lines, her timing was off, and she looked ill at ease in front of a large audience.”
In short, Burke should have been easy pickings for someone like Walker. But she wasn’t. From the outset, Burke offered strong challenges to his record and throughout the debate, she usually gave as good as she got. I doubt that Walker or his handlers expected this. I doubt anyone in the state did.
Walker’s strategy, he told the media, was “largely to ignore my opponent and really spend my time talking to the people of this state.” That might make sense if you’re way ahead in the polls, if you’re a Tommy Thompson-type governor with tremendous bipartisan appeal. But Walker is a divisive candidate whose approval rating has typically been below 50 percent during his time in office and is in a race that’s a dead heat. He has to show Burke is a poor alternative to him.
Both candidates had strong moments. Walker was very good on Act 10’s impact, touting his tax cuts and describing how he would handle the long-term deficit the Legislative Fiscal Bureau has pointed to. Burke was very strong on issues like the minimum wage, abortion and Walker’s turndown of an estimated $500 million in federal health care money. (The topics selected by members of the media seemed to play to her stronger issues.)
In the aftermath of the debate, Walker’s supporters offered a summary that essentially damned him with faint praise. His tireless promoter on talk radio, Charlie Sykes, declared that “as expected” the debate did nothing to change the race, and conservative blogger James Wigderson offered a similar take. But of course it wasn’t expected that Burke would hold her own.
Republicans made much of what they called Burke’s “long pause” before answering the last question, “what is the one thing your opponent brings to the table you see as a positive in leading the state forward?” I timed it at 4.5 seconds. Certainly not a great moment for Burke, but hardly earth shattering.
Meanwhile, Walker offered a howler, telling us he intended to serve four years as governor. This is the man who had done everything possible to plan a run for president while repeatedly refusing to promise he would finish out a second term for governor. When asked about a 2016 presidential run, his friend and political adviser of over two decades, John Hiller told GQ magazine, “Of course he’s going to look at it. Why wouldn’t he?”
Walker’s interest in the race is so well-known the Marquette University Law School poll has asked respondents in a couple different polls what they thought of him running for president. When asked, “Do you think any governor can run for president and still handle their duties as governor?” 65 percent said no—a figure that included 52 percent of Republicans. That was in a May poll, yet Walker for months declined to rule out a run.
I recorded the TV debate, so I was also able to listen to some of it on the radio. I could imagine radio listeners might pick Burke as the winner: She sounds more compelling then she looks. Walker tended to be less responsive to the panel’s questions and went over time repeatedly.
Interestingly, both Burke and Walker were very competitive, multi-sport athletes in high school and it shows. No one expected Burke to run so close to Walker but for months they were in a dead heat and while the last Marquette Poll showed an edge for Walker, the experts who average all polls show it as “too close to call” at fivethirtyeight.com and a “toss-up” at Real Clear Politics. The first debate was a huge opportunity for the far-more-experienced Walker to change the race’s dynamic and take Burke out. He didn’t come close.
-The governor found every opportunity to mention his wife Tonette, as a way of reminding voters what a regular guy he is, compared to single and never-married Burke.
-Walker actually had nothing good to say about how Burke would lead the state forward as a governor, which is what the questioner was asking. He likes her as a philanthropist, we learned.
-Will Walker take a tougher approach against Burke in the second debate? That will be interesting to see.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Right Wisconsin claimed Mary Burke’s pause took 12 seconds.