Walker’s rise is a reminder that among Republican primary voters, and especially Iowa-caucus goers, the market for ideological or even stylistic innovation, may be smaller than the media assumes. Because the most striking thing about Scott Walker’s speech at the Freedom Summit, and his emerging campaign message more generally, is how retro it is. Walker concedes nothing to the conventional wisdom about what the GOP must do to compete in a more culturally tolerant, ethnically diverse and economically insecure America. And the GOP faithful love it.
It starts with ethnicity and race. Since 2012, many prominent Republicans have made overtures to African Americans and Latinos. Paul Ryan has been hanging around with African American ministers. Rand Paul has spoken at Howard University and met with activists in Ferguson. Jeb Bush’s SuperPAC vows that “We will not cede an inch of territory—no issues, no demographic groups, no voters.” Even Representative Curt Clawson, who delivered the Tea Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, managed a few lines of Spanish.
Not Walker. His speech in Iowa not only slammed President Obama’s executive action legalizing some undocumented immigrants. It didn’t even include the love-letter to legal immigrants that Republicans typically use to shield themselves from charges of being anti-Hispanic. In addition, Walker said nothing about reaching out to African Americans and boasted about Wisconsin’s voter-ID law, which many African Americans and Latinos see as means of reducing their turnout. Even the imagery on Walker’s website stands out. People of color make up roughly half the faces in the photo-montage used by Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise PAC (not including Jeb’s himself). In the video for Walker’s new PAC, by contrast, the opening faces are relentlessly white. You don’t encounter an African-American until roughly halfway through. And unlike Jeb’s website, Walker’s isn’t translated into Spanish.
As Alec MacGillis explained in an excellent New Republic profile last summer, greater Milwaukee exists in a kind of political time warp. Because its African-American population arrived later than in other northern cities and because its white population fled to the suburbs later, the racially-tinged, suburban-versus-urban politics that have faded in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia remain strong in Wisconsin. When running for governor, Walker even said, “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee.”
While every Republican presidential hopeful wants to be seen as Reaganesque, other leading contenders clearly hope to improve on the Gipper’s relationship with people of color. Walker, by contrast, isn’t updating the 1980s script at all.
He’s not updating it on economics either. In recent months, many of Walker’s likely GOP opponents have moved beyond a purely anti-government message to suggest conservative-sounding ways government can give Americans an economic boost. Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio have proposed new anti-poverty tax credits. Mitt Romney has backed a higher minimum wage.