If I had to sum up the presidential campaign of Scott Walker in one word, it would be stunning. I spent the first 10 years or so of my professional life working in policy and politics in Milwaukee, the place where Scott Walker happened to be County Executive. The idea that Scott Walker, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, might someday be a viable presidential candidate never crossed my mind. If someone had the foresight to ask me (or any other Milwaukee County resident not related to Walker) if Walker might someday run for president, I would have laughed. Hence, when polls showed Walker had a shot, I was stunned.
I also thought it was kind of exciting. Here is a guy who is firmly middle-class, from Wisconsin, from the Milwaukee area, with a local government background. And for all the anti-Walker feelings out there, he struck me, like most politicians, as a decent guy following a path he felt was right for the state. I wrote about his appeal a little while back, and about how I felt he sacrificed much of it during his presidential campaign. To quote myself:
A compelling case against Scott Walker as Governor (or president) is fairly straightforward to make. The debacle of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation displays a serious management deficiency. His scattershot K-12 education policies suggest he has no clear vision for K-12 education; thereby ensuring progress will not be made. His post Act-10 approach to budgeting is jeopardizing what could have been a public management revolution. His policy positions on hot-button issues are becoming embarrassingly reactive.
Nonetheless, I thought Walker’s chances of winning the nomination were not that bad. He had a track record, money, and was running against Republicans. I thought that so many of the complaints Wisconsinites hear about Walker, i.e. that he divided the state, is anti-worker, lacks a college degree, is a Koch-brother puppet, were unlikely to move GOP primary voters. And on that I think I was right. None of that doomed his presidential bid. So what did?
My reasoned take is that Walker’s fatal flaw is that he is not a generalist. The public expects a president to have a firm (well, firm-enough) grasp on a variety of foreign and domestic policy issues. That never came across with Walker. Even his campaign seemed to realize that with their embarrassing attempt to double down on his anti-union message. But the fact that Walker went back to the union topic, or that he failed to be a generalist is not what stunned me about his fall. What stunned me was how it happened.
Plainly, Walker’s early exit was a failure at politics. Love or hate him, Walker has always been very good at politics. In his rise in Wisconsin he was always disciplined and politically steady, even when dealing with stressful situations that could have easily rattled him (think Act 10 protests, John Doe, the recalls, etc.). During his presidential campaign he was anything but disciplined and politically steady. He was inconsistent and easily rattled That stuns me.
As others are asking this morning, what now? It is hard to see Walker being an effective governor, or even leader of his own party in Wisconsin. His announcement that he was leaving the race struck me as a statement that he was a Republican first, and a state leader second. I am not sure there is much he can do at this point, in such a divided state, to counter that perception. But Walker has stunned be before.