In a development that surprised but did not shock most observers, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker consummated the downward trajectory of his 2016 presidential campaign by “suspending” his candidacy Monday afternoon. This makes him the second candidate to be “winnowed” from the vast field. But while plenty of people might have placed bets that Rick Perry would not make it to Caucus Night—the peak of his national political career remains, eternally, those first few weeks in 2011 when he went roaring and strutting around the country before quickly devolving from Sgt. Rock to Bobo the Simple-Minded—that’s not true of Walker, who seemed to have built a durable base in Iowa and whose mistakes were not exactly epic.
Two very smart observers have offered compelling theories for Walker’s demise. The first was written in 2014, by Alec MacGillis, who then worked for The New Republic. He argued that outside the racial hothouse of metropolitan Milwaukee politics, Walker’s appeal would be difficult to project or expand. Watching him speak at a state GOP convention, MacGillis noted:
Wisconsin politicos say his public-speaking skills have improved, but he still manages to come off as phlegmatic and self-impressed at the same time, with a boyish smirk that can recall George W. Bush. This speech was a forgettable recapitulation of his first term’s successes, delivered in tones even more nasal than usual, thanks to a head cold. “We believe in less dependence on government and more dependence on hard work and personal pride,” he said. “Wisconsin is not only great, it’s greater than the one we grew up in.” Watching him, it was hard to believe that a politician so seemingly banal had been the catalyst for such turmoil.
According to this take, Walker never had the capacity to transfer his act to the Big Top of presidential politics, and in a contest soon dominated by such outsized personalities as Donald Trump, he almost literally faded each and every day.
Moving from a personal to a more purely political take, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver focused on Walker’s uneasy balancing act as a candidate acceptable to both party elites and the conservative base:
[A]ny time a new product is billed as the best of all possible worlds, it could wind up being the worst of all possible worlds instead. A certain type of tablet computer might be adverted as a perfect substitute for both a laptop and a smartphone, for example. But it could turn out to be worse than a laptop at laptop things and worse than a smartphone at smartphone things, leaving pretty much no one satisfied.
Likewise, Walker seemed to be nobody’s first choice — to the point that he polled at an asterisk (less than 1 percent of the vote) in CNN’s most recent poll after the second Republican debate. Voters craving a political outsider had shinier objects to chase down — most notably, Donald Trump. But Walker wasn’t doing all that well with the establishment either, having received just one endorsement from Republican governors or members of Congress since April, having (reportedly) had trouble balancing his campaign’s budget, and having developed a reputation for being gaffe-prone on the campaign trail.
Both these takes more or less confirm the initial impression Walker gave of being the Tim Pawlenty of this cycle: a bland Midwesterner whose appeal was mostly theoretical. Add in a crucially poor debate performance by each—Pawlenty in June of 2011 when he visibly drew back from challenging Mitt Romney over what he had just labeled “Obamneycare,” and Walker in last week’s CNN event when he let Fiorina have all the big moments—and you have a good match.
But on the other hand, T-Paw never had the kind of juice Walker appeared to enjoy for months after his boffo speaking performance at Steve King’s cycle-launching Iowa cattle call back in January. What happened to that Scott Walker?
I have a theory about that. In January, as I explained here at TPM at the time, Walker had the most compelling electability argument in the field:
[Conservatives are] 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.
Since January, however, the context has changed. Fury at party elites for forcing conservatives to sacrifice their “principles” has metastasized far beyond the search for an alternative electability theory. It’s now a full-fledged revolt that has lifted three candidates with no experience in public office into a troika that dominates the field. Walker, who has been in public office since he was 24, can’t pretend to be that sort of “outsider.” But more importantly, as conservatives have given vent to rage over rapists and murderers pouring over the border, the abortion “holocaust” spilling over into open infanticide, a new crime wave emerging from anti-police protests, and Barack Obama consciously selling out the country and its most important ally to the Ayatollahs, the once-gripping saga of Scott Walker taking on the public-employee unions of Wisconsin just isn’t as galvanizing as it once was. Indeed, his accomplishments seem as small as his own persona.
We should have been tipped off at the beginning of the week when Walker first tried to resuscitate his campaign with a proposed national version of his war on unions—and then didn’t even bother to mention it in the CNN debate. He tried to “dance with the one that brung him” into prominence in the race—but by now the wild music and manic gyrations of the contest are just beyond his capacity, leaving him drifting into irrelevance as a failed demagogue. He will not be missed.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog and Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.