The judgments were virtually unanimous: The big winner of the first major “winnowing” event of the 2016 Republican presidential contest, the Iowa Freedom Summit, was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. So said National Review’s John Fund, whose early account of the day of speechifying was festooned with Walker’s iconic shirtsleeves-rolled-up image. So said the influential editor-in-chief of the Iowa Republican website, Craig Robinson, who called the speech Walker’s “coming out party.” Some thought the fiery Ted Cruz was a close second, and some thought Ben Carson maintained his base-pleasing rep, and some thought Carly Fiorina did surprisingly well. But for a proto-candidate most often described as having potential “on paper,” it was a pretty big step forward.
But what did he do that was so appealing? Almost all commentators mentioned his animated presentation, which contradicted his reputation for being “boring,” and just as importantly, helped free him of the label of being this cycle’s “Tim Pawlenty,” the 2012 on-paper smart-money favorite who crashed and burned in Iowa after underwhelming countless audiences. But on a day when Iowans got to listen to natural barnburners like Cruz and spellbinders like Carson, Walker might have leapt across a low bar of expectations for oratory prowess.
Still, something else was going on.
Was it his appeal as an outside-Washington figure? That probably helped, though Governors Christie, Huckabee and Perry and non-office-holders Carson and Fiorina are also innocent of experience in the sinful Capital. Did Iowans warm to his reminiscences of childhood days in the state, and reminders that he lived just next door? Again, maybe; similar assurances helped Michele Bachmann and Pawlenty in 2012. And his specific accomplishments—taking away collective bargaining rights for public employees, instituting Voter ID (though it never got implemented), defunding Planned Parenthood, rejecting the Obamacare Medicaid expansion (while still expanding health coverage) and marketing Wisconsin as a sort of Dixified Midwestern oasis for tax- and union-hating job creators—are highly congenial to conservatives.
For my money, what most makes Scott Walker attractive to the kind of people who attended the Iowa Freedom Summit is his perceived electability: As he mentioned in his speech, and nearly every commenter duly repeated, he’s won three elections in four years in a state carried twice by Barack Obama and governed by a Democrat right before him. Yes, two of those elections were in relatively-low-turnout midterms, and his defeat of a recall effort in 2012 was a special election where he also benefited from the reluctance of some swing voters to remove a duly elected governor from office in the middle of a term. But it’s a better record of electability than other candidates can boast of, unless John Kasich or Rick Snyder run. (Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney won in competitive states, but not since 2002).
There’s a bonus, though, that may make Walker’s pitch especially seductive: He won over and over again in Wisconsin without compromising with conservatism’s enemies. Indeed, he behaved almost like a liberal caricature of a conservative villain. And it was deliberate. In 2013, after his recall victory, Walker published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal offering the novel theory that his aggressive conservatism gave him a leg up with swing voters:
Polls show that about 11% of the people in Wisconsin today support both me and the president. There are probably no two people in public life who are more philosophically opposite—yet more than one in 10 approve of us both.
To make a conservative comeback, Republicans need to win these Obama-Walker voters and their equivalents across the country. In the Wisconsin recall election, we mobilized conservative voters by standing up for conservative principles against enormous pressure. But we also persuaded at least some of President Obama’s supporters to support us, too…
The way Republicans can win those in the middle is not by abandoning their principles. To the contrary, the courage to stand on principle is what these voters respect. The way to win the center is to lead.
That’s why those arguing that conservatives have to “moderate” their views if they want to appeal to the country are so wrong.
This is catnip to conservatives. They’re being endlessly lectured by mainstream media pundits and political professionals in their own camp that they need to “compromise” with Democrats or “reach out” to new constituencies beyond their base if they are to win presidential elections. That’s almost exactly what Jeb Bush is saying in announcing he’s willing to take some hits in the primaries if it enables him to win a general election. But conservatives naturally resist this kind of tradeoff, which they believe they’ve been asked to make far too often with far too little payoff. Walker tells them they do not have to choose. They can win by confrontation, not compromise or outreach, and his three victories are the proof.
If Walker can keep meeting low thresholds for rhetorical skill, and runs a competent, well-funded early campaign, his particular electability pitch could make him very formidable. Conservatives would just love to have their ideological cake and eat it too—in the White House this time.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.