Analysis: Walker gets his moment of glory, now the race is on

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

“You have to be crazy to want to be president,” Gov. Scott Walker told voters last November during his re-election campaign.

But eight months after he assured Wisconsin voters, “I’m going to do the best job I can over the next four years” as governor, he formally announced his presidential bid in Waukesha on July 13. Walker delivered a red-meat speech that positions him at the right margins of the crowded GOP presidential field, which now numbers 15 — with two more announcements expected in the coming days.

Pundits said it was an extremist speech that could help him win the Iowa caucuses but could come back to haunt him later in his campaign. But Walker hopes to win by driving the far right to the polls in massive numbers, a tactic that’s served him well in Wisconsin. And he hopes to capitallize on new Republican-backed laws that make it harder for traditional Democratic constituencies to vote.

Walker’s chief talking point was that he knows “how to fight and win” at imposing ultraconservative policies on a purple state. Walker won in 2014 with 52.3 percent of the votes cast, but only 27 percent of registered voters. His policies have landed Wisconsin at or near the bottom economically, devastated education budgets and environmental protections, taken away women’s rights — and are hugely divisive and unpopular. The last time his approval rating was measured (in April), it stood at 41 percent. And that was before a bruising budget battle cost him support even among the state’s Republican leaders.

Walker is nothing if not a political shape-shifter, who changes positions so often that he sometimes appears to forget where he stands on any given day. He’s also a master of factual distortion. Among the governors whose statements are most frequently checked by Politifact, Walker leads the pack with the number of falses.

Walker rose to national fame after boldly — and without prior warning — gutting public unions after taking office in 2011. He used the move to fuel middle-class resentments, pitting workers who enjoyed union protections and bargaining powers against those who did not. He went on to eliminate all wage-protection laws and exploit the indignation of older white males toward poor people who receive public assistance.

As he was caught on videotape telling billionaire supporter Diane Hendricks, Walker’s political strategy is based on “divide and conquer.” Hendricks, who paid no income taxes in 2012, gave Wisconsin Republicans $1 million in 2014.

About 5,000 conservatives cheered his passionate, commanding 30-minute speech on July 13 at Waukesha County Expo Center. The crowd went wild when he talked about unions and jeered when he mentioned climate change, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

In an effort to show that he was boning up on foreign policy knowledge, Walker made generalized remarks about the Islamic State group that reflected what others in the Republican field have been saying.

While national media afforded Walker his moment of glory, seeds of the trouble that lies ahead for him were also present at the Waukesha County Expo Center — specifically outside Gates 1 and 2. 

There, more than 200 sign-waving protesters gathered, organized by the Democratic Party, environmental groups, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. They hoped to draw attention to their view of Walker’s record. Some wore bags over their heads labeled “Ashamed of Walker.” They lingered for three hours.

Although the size of the protest was significantly smaller than the 100,000-plus anti-Walker crowds that surrounded the Capitol for days in 2011, the rhetoric hasn’t cooled over the past four years.

Media largely ignored the event, which was designed to deliver a message that was best summed up by Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Martha Laning.

“Scott Walker’s record in Wisconsin is one of unprecedented corruption, division, extremism and a failure to foster economic growth and opportunity,” she said in a press statement. “And now, with wages in Wisconsin stagnant, job growth that’s dead last in the Midwest and trailing most of the nation, a flagship jobs agency that’s known more for scandal than economic development and a $2.2 billion budget deficit created by his failed policies, Scott Walker wants to take that record nationwide.”

Critics hope that Walker’s scandals, gaffes, shoddy management and other failures become more widely known as he faces increasing scrutiny — and the probing eyes of opposition researchers in both parties.

Despite being extremely well funded by special interests, especially the fossil fuel interests that he’s catered to during his gubernatorial tenure, Walker will have to fight for attention in a crowded field, duck difficult questions about the state’s economy and his foreign policy knowledge and overcome the numerous scandals that have plagued his career.

As Susan Page, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, put it, “Walker’s relative obscurity is both a big asset and his chief vulnerability.”

The next few months are going to be riveting — and frustrating — for Wisconsin liberals and independents who have watched Walker turn the state from a bastion of reform and progressivism into the Midwest’s equivalent of Mississippi.