Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s appearance at Iowa’s first major cattle call for Republican presidential candidates has attracted a lot of buzz.
Walker has never been a great orator, but he was able to win multiple standing ovations from the conservative crowd. It’s enough to make some Republicans wonder: does Walker make as much sense in practice as he does on paper?
Consider that Walker took on public-sector unions in labor-friendly Wisconsin and won. Ohio Gov. John Kasich picked much the same fight and lost. Counting the recall election, Walker has thrice taken the best shot national Democratic and liberal organizations can deliver and won each time in what can fairly be described as a blue state.
Most of the other conservatives running for president are senators (or in one case a neurosurgeon). Most of the other current and former governors running have some major liability among conservatives (including Indiana Gov. Mike Pence) or divide Republicans in their home state (particularly Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal). Not Walker.
Walker is acceptable to nearly every major conservative faction in a way most of the other options are not. But can he straddle two conservative camps that are often diametrically opposed? The groups in question would be the libertarian-tinged liberty movement and the hawkish national-security conservatives.
When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie picked his first fight with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, saying that the rise of libertarians within the party was dangerous, Walker initially sided with Christie. But later, he sought a middle ground.
“I don’t know that you could put me in either camp, precisely,” Walker told the Washington Post in reference to Christie and Paul. He also said there was value in a dialogue among Republicans about civil liberties.
Walker doesn’t seem to have well-defined foreign-policy views, but he’s probably said the least that will automatically repel realists, libertarians, and others on the right looking for a more cautious and restrained approach to military force abroad. That includes Kasich, who like the Republican Party itself was less interventionist in the 1990s and then more hawkish after 9/11 under George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney, who has vacillated between cartoonish saber-rattling and occasional acknowledgements that a repeat of the Iraq War would be a bad idea.
The path of least resistance within the GOP is to combine hawkish rhetoric with vague commitments, occasionally tossing less hawkish conservatives concessions on national-building, congressional war powers, and American troops fighting under foreign command. Anything more (or less) gets you into trouble with hawkish commentators, as Mitch Daniels discovered when he deviated even slightly from this script. Foreign-policy perspectives that were not long ago perfectly mainstream within the Republican Party (think Colin Powell, James Baker, even Robert Zoellick) are now described in overheated terms once reserved for Ramsey Clark.
If Rand Paul is going to have the libertarian vote sewn up anyway, along with all the Republican foreign-policy advisers who sound appreciably different from John Bolton, why risk this kind of blowback?
There are a few reasons. One, unlike his father, Paul is unlikely to continue past the early states without a realistic path to the nomination. He doesn’t have the inclination for a quixotic bid, nor do Kentucky’s laws keeping him from running for two offices simultaneously (he’s up for reelection in 2016, too) and his own desire to remain influential past the primaries. That means he will either be running so well that he commands a larger slice of Republican voters than his father or that he will be out of the race and his votes will be gettable.
Gary Johnson won more than 1 million votes as the Libertarian Party nominee in 2012. At least some of those votes could have been won by a less hawkish Republican, and they could come in handy in a close race. If Paul exits the race early or comes up short before the Republican National Convention, it’s possible that an even larger number of voters will flock to the Libertarian Party or stay home in November—unless the GOP gives them someone to vote for.
Finally, Hillary Clinton is the likely Democratic nominee. After making some noises that suggested she learned at least a little bit from her Iraq vote, she is sounding hawkish again. It might not be bad for a Republican nominee to be able to campaign against her Bush-lite foreign-policy tendencies.
Even if Walker did decide he wanted to be able to unite the party on foreign policy and civil liberties, three big obstacles remain. The first is that less interventionist conservatives feel burned by Bush’s “humble foreign policy” talk in 2000 and would likely want assurances of the kind that would get Walker in trouble with his party’s hawks, which is probably a no-go. The second is that candidates polling where Walker is, even a year out, usually lose the Republican nomination. It’s not entirely clear he’s even a likelier nominee than Paul. The third is that the only non-telegenic men who have won the presidency in the television era first served as vice president under popular presidents. (Your mileage on Jimmy Carter may vary.)
Hawk or dove, it will take more than one speech to a partisan Iowa audience to prove Walker can fill the charisma gap.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of the Daily Caller and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?