Why Scott Walker May Not Be Ready for Prime-Time

The very things that fueled the Wisconsin governor’s success in state and local politics are working against him on the national stage.

Scott Walker wants us to believe that he is bruised, but not beaten.

In a speech he delivered Thursday at Eureka College, the alma mater of his hero, Ronald Reagan, the Wisconsin governor injected a bit of Trumpian bombast into his rhetoric, promising to “wreak havoc on Washington.”

And channeling his own record as a union buster, he promised that on his first day in office he will stop the federal government from deducting “political union dues” from employee paychecks. Never mind that every federal workplace is an open shop, in which no workers are required to pay union dues. Taking down labor bosses is his thing; now he has to stick to it. In a race dominated by single-issue candidates, Walker has apparently concluded that his previous attempts to sell himself as a five-tool candidate were nothing but a guarantee of below-the-fold coverage.

But heated words in a single speech won’t make Walker an effective demagogue. A billion dollars and a combover won’t turn Walker into a Trump, or even a Ted Cruz. Walker simply isn’t a candidate designed for presidential-style prominence. Walker has certain very important political skills that have led him to the place he is today. In fact, it may be his reliance on the skills that paved his success in state politics that prevent him from succeeding as a presidential candidate.

During the years I covered him as a reporter in Wisconsin, he never seemed to strike voters as a guy you’d wait on for hours in the cold to hear speak. Despite his best efforts to brand himself as a Harley-riding everyman, most didn’t seem to find him the kind of guy they’d really want to have a beer with, either.

Some Wisconsin observers in media and politics, including some of his fiercest opponents, truly believed that he had a good shot at the nomination or presidency. They warned me not to underestimate a guy who had won three elections in four years and turned a renowned laboratory of progressive thought into a formidable factory of right-wing policy.

Walker, who has been running political campaigns since his days as a student at Marquette, learned early on that a successful candidate is one who works relentlessly on the things that TV cameras don’t bother covering. Speeches and debates––the subjects he is flunking during the presidential campaign––are barely relevant in local and state politics.

Rather, a great candidate in state politics is one who is up to the grueling, demanding, demeaning task of knocking on thousands of doors and begging donors for money. Most people with a sense of dignity aren’t. But there are the rare creatures like Scott Walker who excel at the task.

Knocking on doors is not about wowing those you encounter with a firm grip of policy or a ground-shaking vision. The goal is to introduce yourself and deliver a simple one or two-sentence message. “I’m Scott Walker and I’m fighting for lower property taxes. Go Packers.” It’s that easy. A bland candidate who will shake 500 hands at a county fair wins over an eloquent, charming one who only meets 50 people at the same event. It’s that hard.

Similarly, raising money in low-level politics is mostly about demonstrating discipline, competence and, above all else, loyalty. The chamber of commerce, the realtors association, the police union, and the myriad other interests a local candidate courts aren’t looking for fireworks; they simply want candidates who pledge to support their positions and know how to enact their legislative priorities. The process is that much simpler for candidates appealing to the party base, such as Walker, because they don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable position of negotiating or explaining compromises.

Even when Walker graduated to a higher level of politics, in which door-to-door campaigning was not feasible, he retained directness and simplicity in his communications. Clearly embracing the consultant-driven conventional wisdom that staying on message is the most important lesson of politics, his campaign websites and position statements were always pointedly brief, and he barely attempted to answer tough questions from media.

In the low-turnout spring elections for county executive and the midterm elections for governor (both of which took place during GOP wave years), Walker’s simple strategy was more than enough to prevail. The hard work was not wooing an indecisive electorate; it was simply earning the support of those who mattered early in the process and raising money.

Finally, throughout his career, Walker didn’t have to deal with a media that never hesitated to declare him dumb, dull, or dead at the first whiff of a gaffe. Although the financially strapped and understaffed Wisconsin media gave Walker more than his share of scrutiny, even the scandals that it revealed about his administration rarely seemed to receive much attention from voters, much less affect his standing. Walker found he could deal most effectively with local media by steadfastly evading tough questions with his reliable talking points.

On the crowded national stage, though, the same boring talking points aren't good enough. And what’s more, Scott Walker doesn't have nearly enough time to shake everybody’s hand. He can’t simply outhustle the crowded field of candidates. In fact, even while courting the small group of mega-donors that every GOP candidate is desperate to impress, Walker is facing competition and scrutiny that he has shown himself fundamentally unprepared to confront because he is still playing bush-league politics on a big-league field.

Walker’s political persona is by no means unique. In fact, superficial, consultant-driven political rhetoric is endemic to American politics. The fact that it is so common is one reason that candidates like Trump, who may be liars but at least are not boring liars, have had such a great effect. Because they're the opposite of Scott Walker.