It’s been a rough month for Scott Walker. From February through July, the Wisconsin governor topped virtually every poll of likely GOP voters in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. But after a lackluster performance in the opening Republican presidential debate on August 6, Walker dropped nearly 10 points in an average of Iowa polls, sliding to third place behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson, with Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio close behind.
Is Walker’s dive a temporary blip or a sign of deeper problems with the candidate? The case for calm is fairly strong. There are five months and five more debates left until anyone must settle on a candidate. Trumpmania has overtaken the entire GOP field, not just Walker. When the “frontrunner” is only polling in the high teens or low twenties, the title doesn’t mean much—voters remain undecided. And Walker continues to lay the groundwork for long-term victory: On August 18, he introduced a plan to repeal Obamacare that Yuval Levin, a leading conservative reformer, called “the most substantively and politically serious conservative health care reform we have yet seen from a presidential candidate.” There’s still hope for Walker that when the dust settles he’ll be the candidate left standing who can unite a fractious party.
But signs of deeper trouble for Walker are also strong. The theory behind a Walker candidacy is that after two terms of Barack Obama, voters are ready for a workhorse, not a showhorse. The Trump phenomenon may indicate that’s not true, and voters still want a candidate with charisma—someone who can inspire or, in the case of Trump, at least entertain them.
Walker has always acknowledged he’s an ordinary guy who doesn’t give soaring speeches, but he believes that charisma is about much more than oratory. “I think there’s a certain appeal that people have for candidates who are authentic, people who have a passion for ideas and who believe in things,” Walker told me during his 2014 gubernatorial reelection campaign. “We say what we mean, we mean what we say. I think that’s certainly appealing.”
Lately, however, Walker himself seems intent on undermining his core appeal as an authentic, straight-talking conservative.
On Monday, August 17, Walker said in a Fox News interview that his position on immigration is “very similar” to Donald Trump’s. When asked by an MSNBC reporter later that day if he thinks birthright citizenship should be ended for the children of illegal immigrants, Walker replied, “yeah, absolutely, going forward.” But by Friday, after a week of negative headlines and criticism from some donors, Walker declared of birthright citizenship on CNBC, “I’m not taking a position on it one way or the other.”
Two days later, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Walker if he supported the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States.” Walker replied: “Well, I said the law is there, we need to enforce the laws, including those that are in the Constitution.” The satirical newspaper the Onion published a story the next day with the headline: “Out-of-Control Scott Walker Injured After Wildly Careening Between Stances on Immigration.”
Even when he isn’t trying to mimic Trump, Walker has had a difficult time delivering a clear and consistent message. The governor has a strong pro-life record, but during his 2014 reelection campaign he wouldn’t say if he’d sign legislation protecting unborn children after the fifth month of pregnancy. He again declined to specify any actions he’d take to protect the lives of unborn children in a March 1 interview on Fox News Sunday. Two days later, under pressure from pro-life leaders, Walker said he would sign the popular bill banning abortion after the fifth month of pregnancy. He made good on that promise in June.
But in the August 6 GOP debate, with 24 million people watching, Walker staked out a very unpopular position on the issue. When Fox News’s Megyn Kelly asked Walker if he’d “really let a mother die rather than have an abortion,” Walker replied, “that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that will also protect the life of that mother.” In a post-debate interview with Sean Hannity, Walker called the question a “false choice.”
“Medically, there’s always a better choice between choosing the life of an unborn baby and the life of the mother,” Walker told Hannity. “Medically, that’s just a nonissue.”