Scott Walker's Foreign-Policy Gaffes Don't Matter

Does the political class overrate the necessity of diplomacy experience in presidential candidates?

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

In a strange convergence, there's agreement among the diehard right-wingers gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside of Washington this week and left-wing pundits: Scott Walker is on top of the world. Well, maybe not the world—we'll get to that—but the Republican presidential sweepstakes.

Although Jeb Bush boasts impressive momentum—nearly insurmountable momentum, in the judgment of D.C. tastemaker Mike Allen—CPAC is a good illustration of Bush's weaknesses. Bush was due to speak later Friday, but just the mention of his name drew boos earlier in the day. Walker, meanwhile, enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive response Thursday from the crowd at the conference, which leans more conservative than the former Florida governor.

One Walker line caught attention outside the CPAC bubble, though: his answer when asked what about his background prepared him to be handle the threat of ISIS. “I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil," he said. "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

As many, many people immediately leapt to point out, dealing with a crowd of angry but mostly peaceful union demonstrators and liberal activists in Madison is rather different from dealing with murderous, messianic terrorists in Mesopotamia. (It's also very offensive to unions and Wisconsinites who disagreed with Walker about labor, but let's set that aside for the purposes of discussion.) Walker's presumptive 2016 rival Rick Perry saw an attractive weapon for bashing him. Walker later told the Wisconsin State Journal he didn't regret the comment, and added: "I’m just pointing out the closest thing I have to handling this difficult situation is the 100,000 protesters I had to deal with."

Everyone, Walker included, seems to agree the comparison wasn't well founded, but to state the obvious, it's hard to imagine this quotation being a major source of grief for him in the campaign. Operatives and reporters are in full gaffe-spotting mode already, but many of the alleged boneheaded quotes seem destined to fade. I'm so old I remember when prominent journalists were saying Walker's failure to disavow Rudy Giuliani's claim that President Obama didn't love America should disqualify him from contention. (It was last Friday.) And yet here he still is!

Shortly after that dinner with Giuliani, Walker was asked about whether he believed Obama was a Christian and said he didn't know. He tried to spin that as a response to a gotcha question, a trick that might have worked more effectively if his spokeswoman hadn't hastened to assure The Washington Post that he knew Obama was a Christian. These gaffes are ephemeral, and insofar as they ought to inspire concern among his supporters, it's mostly about clumsy handling of fairly straightforward questions.

Yet the ISIS answer reveals one of Walker's biggest weaknesses: foreign policy. Marco Rubio can point to his experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Jeb Bush has tried to move quickly to articulate a theory of foreign relations—partly in response to comparisons to his brother George W. Bush. While he hasn't gotten very far with that, he benefits among hawks from his association with the Bush family (and, needless to say, suffers from it among conservative doves and moderate swing voters). Rand Paul and Ted Cruz can't claim extensive foreign-policy experience, but they profit from having strongly articulated ideological approaches. Not so with Walker.

The backlash to Walker's comment echoes, in a peculiar way, some of the circa-2007 derision of Senator Barack Obama as nothing more than a community organizer without the chops to handle the world. (Perhaps Walker, by virtue of his anti-union offensive, could market himself as a community disorganizer?) Like Walker, who caused a ruckus when he decided to "punt" on a question about evolution in London, Obama's foreign trips didn't always go smoothly.

In the end, it didn't matter to voters. In fact, the political class may consistently make unrealistic demands for foreign-policy experience in presidential candidates—many of whom come from governor's mansions—whereas having extensive foreign-policy experience is arguably politically overrated. Among recent presidents, none had a longer global resume than George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, ambassador to the United Nations, and de facto ambassador to China. Bush defeated a feckless Michael Dukakis in 1988 but couldn't win reelection against Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in 1992.

The obvious rebuttal: What about the policy, stupid? And here, opinions will diverge based on what you think about Obama's foreign policy. How much, though, are the successes and limitations of Obama's foreign policy a result of his limited experience before taking office? My colleague Conor Friedersdorf has argued repeatedly that having won the 2008 Democratic primary by accurately painting Hillary Clinton as a hawk who badly misjudged the war in Iraq, Obama surrounded himself with hawks and Clinton confidantes who had made the same errors (most notably Clinton herself, as secretary of state).

Under this theory of foreign-policy capture, what matters ends up not being how many stamps a politician can get in her passport but her judgment—both her judgment on specific issues that arise during a presidency, and perhaps more importantly her judgment in picking advisers who will lead her astray. Obama said as much in 2008: "Senator Clinton equates experience with longevity in Washington. I don't think the American people do, and I don't think that if you look at the judgments that we've made over the last several years that that's the accurate measure."

None of this means Walker will get away with not offering a more detailed explanation of how he'd handle ISIS. That explanation will be dissected and criticized and picked apart, as it should be for any idea put forth by a candidate to be leader of the free world. That answer will also be more important than how many foreign countries Walker has visited. But while world travel isn't easy, it's easier than trying to make that case to voters—which may be why Walker is planning a trip to Western Europe in April.