Walker Bets on the Radical Right
He plans to beat Bush and Rubio from the far right. But his success could make him unelectable in the general election.
Scott Walker isn’t going to let any Republican candidate outflank him on the right. The latest evidence of this is his remarkable stance opposing reforms to restrict NSA surveillance, which seemed to stun Wisconsin Republican congressman F. James Sensenbenner.
Sensenbrenner, the author of the “Patriot Act,” which was used by administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama to collect data from all Americans’ phone calls, has condemned this practice, and championed the “Freedom Act” (sheesh, these names) to restrict this practice. The bill would require the NSA to seek specific telecom records subject to court review (though probable cause would not be required). Yet Walker told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert he opposed the reform.
“I was absolutely surprised” to hear of the governor’s position, Sensenbrenner told the newspaper, “because all of the Wisconsin Republicans in Congress have voted for it,” including even the very conservative new GOP representative Glenn Grothman.
Nor does the majority of Americans (though that is less sweeping): a recent poll found 59 percent of respondents totally opposed keeping the federal government’s current surveillance programs in place without any changes.
Walker, however, has said “I would prefer to have something closer to the Patriot Act intact (with) some sort of balance to make sure the Patriot Act doesn’t run out.”
To which Sensenbrenner replied that Walker was “misinformed” on the Freedom Act: “it does give the NSA access to the materials they need, but the privacy of Americans is protected because the government is not storing the data… Continuing the present program is not the proper balance between privacy and national security. There is no privacy if the government ends up collecting trillions of phone records made by Americans and storing it for five years.”
Beyond the policy arguments here is the fact that Walker is so unbothered to be standing with a small minority of politicians nationally on this issue. Why? Because he wants to be the candidate on the right in the Republican presidential primary, the alternative to the more moderate Jeb Bush, the presumed front-runner. And that means he needs to be seen as more conservative than a candidate like Mario Rubio (who is in a near dead heat right now with Walker and Bush, as Real Clear Politics’ analysis of the polls shows) and at least as conservative as candidates farther behind in the polls, like Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz.
Walker has shown remarkable intestinal fortitude in hewing to this approach. Rejecting the federal funding for Medicaid expansion has meant a loss of several hundred million dollars that could easily have paid for the huge cuts in UW System funding and avoided a ton of negative publicity for the governor in Wisconsin. But this stance has made Walker every bit as anti-Obamacare (which depends on the expansion of Medicaid) as a firebrand like Cruz.
It’s truly stunning how far Walker is willing to go to buttress his right-wing credentials. He resisted support for the Right-to-Work law for more than a year, but finally embraced it. He has recently indicated support for a state ban on abortions even for victims of rape and incest, which a 21012 poll suggested only 14 percent of Americans support and a 2014 poll found 11 percent would support.
Walker, of course, has always been very anti-abortion, so that stance matches his philosophy, but strategically speaking, he is aligning himself with a small minority of Americans who happen to be a dominant portion of Republican primary voters. That seems pretty risky.
Of course, if this approach does win Walker the Republican presidential nomination, he would then try to pivot to the center. It’s time honored way for candidates of both parties to campaign, and you could see a version of that at work in Walker’s gubernatorial election, when he downplayed his anti-abortion history and portrayed himself as someone “helping” women seeking an abortion. In the candidate debates he posed pretty much across the board as Mr. Moderate.
But the degree of pivoting required of Walker to move more toward the center in the presidential race could tax the most elastic gymnast in the world. And Walker won’t be doing his political pirouettes in a small-media state like Wisconsin, where the newspapers aren’t that probing and are shouted down by talk radio. The national media scene will generate far more stories and commentary.
It’s always difficult to predict which issues will stick in the voters’ minds, but the ultra sound issue seems potent because it’s easy to understand and quite personal for women voters. As Collins noted, Walker was “conflating the vision of happy parents getting their first glimpse of their baby-to-be with what’s appropriate for a woman who has made the stupendously profound and private decision to terminate a pregnancy.”
Walker, based on his experience in Wisconsin, has learned he can get away with flagrantly right wing comments (like his “divide and conquer” statement about going after both public and private unions), and then modulate his persona in the general election. But amid the unrelenting scrutiny trained on a national election for president, that will be much harder to accomplish. Democratic consultants, you can bet, are already putting together comments like “it’s just a cool thing” for dramatic 30 second ads, should Walker be the opponent. The more such comments Walker offers to die-hard right wing primary voters, the more roadblocks he may erect for his anticipated journey back toward the center.