Scott Walker’s announcement that he was running for president kicked of a fury of activity on my Facebook account. The posts were fairly consistent, conservative friends praised him, and liberal friends denounced him. However, one post from a particularly intelligent, likely left-of-center friend of mine caught my eye. My friend asked a simple and honest question, what is the appeal of Scott Walker? To my friend, and so many others in our divided state, the three-time election of Scott Walker as governor is confounding, but the potential of a Walker presidency is unfathomable.
This got me thinking, what exactly is it about Scott Walker that draws support, particular in a state that has voted blue in every presidential election since Ronald Reagan?
Reason one, while not very exciting is nonetheless true: The low quality of his electoral opponents. Every election is its own animal, and in a closely divided state the winner is often decided by voters who do not reflexively vote for one party’s nominee. Tom Barrett was hurt by the Doyle legacy in 2010, and was a retread in the 2012 recall. Mary Burke seemed over her head from the start, and like Barrett, offered no compelling positive message. Now, this could be dismissed as luck, but remember Walker withdrew from the 2006 Republican primary, surely knowing the difficulty it beating the incumbent Jim Doyle.
Reason two is Walker’s early public attitudes on social issues. Many conservatives cringe when Republican politicians begin talking about abortion, gay-marriage, and other hot-button cultural issues. The idea of an elected official who views his or her job as running government in the most efficient way possible, rather than spouting off about social issues beyond his or her control, is appealing to many. Walker cultivated this image as Milwaukee County Executive, and in his first term in the Governor’s mansion. More recently, and I think unfortunately, Walker has been vocal in his conservative stance on social issues. These stances may play well to presidential primary voters, but will likely alienate some of his early Wisconsin supporters (even his sons disagree with some of his positions).
Reason three is Walker’s regular-guy image. Several years ago I was waiting in the concession line with my son at a Marquette-Wisconsin game only to look up and see the Governor standing next to me. He was by himself, wearing a Marquette sweatshirt, and not at all intimidating to talk with. He came off as comfortable, friendly, and genuine. In my career I have had the chance to meet several notable politicians, and none came across as relatable as Walker… and it is not close. Why does this matter? Well, there is a sizable chunk of the electorate that wants leadership with lived experience on middle- and working-class issues.
Reason four is Walker’s first budget. In 2011, Wisconsin’s bi-partisan legacy of using short-term gimmicks to have our cake and eat it too, finally stopped (if ever so briefly). This is not to say Walker’s budget was perfect, or that alternatives to spending cuts did not exist. However, Walker was plain about his aversion to revenue increases in an honest approach to addressing the state’s structural deficit. Such an approach was highly appealing on the heels of the excesses of the Thompson and Doyle administrations.
Reason five is his survival of the Act 10 protests, and the recall. No matter one’s views on Act 10, the Governor’s ability to weather the massive protests and win the recall election demonstrated a level of steadfastness and toughness that many find compelling in a leader. The fact that Walker weathered these storms calmly, without resorting to the abrasiveness of say a Chris Christie, demonstrated a calm temperament that is attractive in a leader. Remember, President Obama emphasized this very quality during his first successful presidential run.
Reason six is Act 10 itself. One Act 10 takeaway is that a sizable percentage of Wisconsinites felt that public sector employees were not fairly sharing in the economic pain following the 2008 great recession. Walker was able to translate the unfairness felt by this population into a piece of policy he supported despite tremendous pressure to back down, helping to build a coalition of support that may propel him to the White House.
Scott Walker has plenty of flaws. Take a look, for example, at his shrinking approval ratings here in Wisconsin. However, Governor Walker is a top-tier presidential candidate for a reason. To answer my original question, what is the appeal of Scott Walker? He is a Governor who, in a very short time period, has successfully navigated various political landmines, demonstrated steadfastness, portrayed a calm everyman image, and significantly altered an array of Wisconsin’s public policies. Love him or hate him, it is a record that holds a rational appeal to many voters here, and around the country.