Donald Trump and the political power of incoherence

22 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

After quitting 2016 race, Walker returns to work as governor.

Wisconsin governor and CPR practice mannequin Scott Walker quit the 2016 presidential race yesterday, completing one of the quickest and most thoroughly satisfying political collapses in recent memory. Before the new rules of money and politics brought him crashing back to earth, Scott Walker’s shooting star briefly burned brightest of all the Republicans jostling for the US presidency.Walker’s spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster said Tuesday that Walker was spending most of his day in briefings with executive staff and he would not make any public appearances.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a piece here about a phenomenon I called The Great Whitebread Hope, which is an ongoing Republican establishment fantasy of electing an upper-Midwestern “reformer” in the LaFollete tradition who can bring together all the disparate factions of the party and offer up an image of respectable, mature, pragmatic leadership (and incidentally pick up some badly needed electoral votes from somewhere).For months, Obama has been challenging the Wisconsin governor on everything from his ardently anti-union positions to his shallow foreign policy experience.Scott Walker dropping out of the race puts his supporters and staff at the disposal of other mainstream Republican Party contenders and thus, in a sense, marks an important step in the winnowing process through which an outsider candidate like Donald Trump is ultimately supposed to be marginalized.

For months, Walker was the odds-on favorite to snag the Republican nomination: a hardline conservative who specialized in beating up liberals and ramming through right-wing policy items. A slick hospitality suite at the party’s Lincoln dinner in Iowa last May offered the best midwest charm money can buy: cold beer, a ride on a Harley Davidson and free cheese dispensed by the grinning governor of the neighbouring state of Wisconsin. Then he actually started campaigning and voters came to recognize him as an aimless, groundless, personality-deficient weirdo who clearly hadn’t put any real thought into why he was running for president. With a reputation for selling ruthless conservatism to traditionally Democratic voters, Walker was leading the primary race not just in Iowa but in national polling too, easily upstaging the awkward-looking Jeb Bush and Donald Trump’s ominous security guards. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, whom beltway political mavens had built up for years as an exciting Republican reformer with big “new ideas” (like welfare reform and school vouchers).

Focusing his ire directly at Walker, Obama said: “Even as its governor claims victory over working Americans, I’d encourage him to try and score a victory for working Americans.” A few weeks later, the president criticized Walker for saying he would revoke an Iranian nuclear deal if elected president. After all, if you add Scott Walker’s current position in the polls to Jeb Bush’s number and to Marco Rubio’s number it only tallies up to about 17 percent. After somnambulating through two debates and reversing himself (often several times) on just about every issue Republicans care about, Walker saw his national and state-level polling crater to the point that he was pulling in less support than loathsome cranks like Rick Santorum. But by the time Walker took the reluctant decision to suspend his campaign on Monday – just 71 days after its formal launch – the dream of this tough new breed of purple state Republicanism lay in tatters.

In the wake of the Bush debacle, he was especially attractive as an “outsider” who could make the American people forget what they’d just endured. That’s a troubling low level of combined support for the main establishment candidates, a total that leaves them behind Ben Carson’s 18.8 percent and it’s way behind Donald Trump’s 28.5 percent.

Unfortunately, like Walker, on the stump Thompson was frighteningly unprepared, even making embarrassing gaffes about Jews and Israel, and he dropped out in August of 2007. The president’s jabs at Walker became so frequent that they prompted a reporter to ask the White House spokesman, “What does the president have against Scott Walker?” Walker’s advisers tried to use Obama’s barbs as proof that Democrats were worried about his prospects for electoral success. And so just days after debuting his new personality as a candidate who will personally “wreak havoc” on Washington and never give up the fight, Scott Walker gave up the fight.

Walker entered the 2016 race as an ostensible Republican darling, shot into the national spotlight by his victories over unions and his triumph in a recall election. Undeterred by this embarrassment, the establishment once again anointed a Midwestern Governor as the GOP’s salvation for exactly the same reasons in 2014, former Minnesota Gov. There are simply far too many Republicans currently supporting Trump, Carson, or other candidates on the fringe like Mike Huckabee (4.8) or Ted Cruz (6.5) or Carly Fiorina (6.3) for consolidation among the establishment figures to put someone over the top.

In folding his campaign, Walker offered himself as a sort of Sydney Carton, nobly sacrificing his political life so that someone just like him might have a chance at succeeding in the Republican primary. “Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field,” Walker said. He then embarked on a whirlwind tour of the four early primary states, culminating in Iowa where he was received like a rock star in front of crowds of hundreds. Making the situation even more uncertain, it’s Walker — i.e., the guy who dropped out — who was actually in the best position to benefit from consolidation. This year it was Scott Walker, who “suspended” his campaign yesterday after having been in precipitous free fall from front-runner to last place and facing the prospect of being booted from the main debate stage and forced to spar with Lindsey Graham at the kids’ table next time out.

By contrast, some conservatives may have been supporting Walker precisely because they find support for comprehensive immigration reform to be unacceptable. He had set up a sprawling (and expensive) campaign as a show of frontrunner dominance, but his awful performance on the trail scared off donors, making it impossible to sustain the operation. Those close to the campaign point to a variety of factors behind its implosion – from disastrous debate appearances, to plummeting poll numbers and gaffes galore – but it is the changing role of campaign finance that raises most questions about the wider meaning of Walker’s fall from grace. It’s possible that Walker could have drastically cut staff and limped along to the Iowa caucuses like so many fallen frontrunners have done before him, but he’d demonstrated no ability to win Republican voters to his cause, and being forced to quit after a sixth-place finish in Iowa would have made him look worse than he does now.

Fresh from taking on the public sector unions in Wisconsin and winning a bitter recall election, the governor was backed by some of the richest business families in the midwest. Luther Olsen. “He was at the top essentially because of one speech.” To some extent, Walker is a victim of a campaign in which voters long-frustrated with politics are turning their backs on candidates with long resumes in government. Four donors alone – including the stockbroking owner of the Chicago Cubs, Joe Ricketts, and roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks – raised the bulk of the $20m recorded by his Super Pac, the “Unintimidated Pac”. But campaign finance rules prevent these uncapped political action committees from spending money directly with the campaign, which recruited heavily in the mistaken hope of matching the enthusiasm of these big donors with a rush of small contributions. “It’s a lot harder to make payroll for a staff of 90 with the FEC limit of $2,700 per person, as opposed to Super Pacs where the big cheques are for a million dollars or more,” says Matt Batzel, a Wisconsin strategist who helped Walker win his recall election. On a February trade mission to Europe meant to bolster his foreign policy credentials, Walker refused to answer questions about international affairs.

Back in 2014, as they all made pilgrimages to the Republican Governor’s Association, Politico described them this way: “[They are] Rust Belt success stories who can revive the party’s Reagan Democrat coalition and speak to the middle class in a way Mitt Romney could not. Recriminations began to fly, particularly after Walker’s almost non-existent showing in the second Republican debate last week was followed by a tough conference call with donors and a whispering campaign against the governor’s chief strategist, Rick Wiley. “Toward the end, a lot of donors fancied themselves as campaign managers, even though that’s not their role, so there was a lot of second guessing,” says Batzel. And Republicans looking to shed the image as the party of the 1 percent say a Midwestern state executive who’s created jobs and balanced budgets might be just what the GOP needs.” The fact that they seemed to be able to transcend the party’s, shall we say, cruder side was also a big selling point. Walker’s four largest donors declined to respond to Guardian requests for comment and some are rumoured to be seeking the return of any funds left unspent in the Super Pac. As Walker put it during his apparently impressive appearance: By strong leadership he meant that one should be as crackpot right-wing as one can get away with and not be Michele Bachmann.

The emerging consensus seems to be that Marco Rubio is poised to have his big moment, and that Walker’s demise will benefit the Florida Republican the most, as he offers the same mix of establishment credibility and conservative bona fides that Walker once enjoyed. But to make matters worse, the political advertising that this money could have been spent on appears to have been of declining value in a 2016 primary election dominated by the media-friendly antics of maverick candidates such as Trump. “It underscores the sense in which presidential primaries are increasingly driven by media coverage; what is known as ‘earned media’ rather than ‘paid media’,” says Chris Henick, a Republican strategist who worked with Karl Rove in the last Bush White House. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t measure money.

The New Republic described him this way: “Scott Walker, the battle-hardened governor of Wisconsin, is the candidate that the factional candidates should fear. Not only does he seem poised to run—he released a book last week—but he possesses the tools and positions necessary to unite the traditional Republican coalition and marginalize its discontents.” He took his marching orders from The Club For Growth, Americans for Prosperity and anti-immigration guru Jeff Sessions. At one point, he said he isn’t a career politician — despite having held elected office for 22 straight years. “The glare of the klieg lights came early for Walker and it’s hard to be prepared for that type of scrutiny when it’s your first presidential campaign,” said Kevin Madden, who advised Mitt Romney during his second run for president in 2012. Had he cut his cloth to deal with the new financial and polling reality and continued to run with a more modest campaign, it would no longer have been the fight of a frontrunner. While Iowa and its kickoff caucus gave Walker the best chance to grab an early victory, his campaign built a wide network of staff and consultants in states that don’t vote until well into March.

While all the constituencies in the party who were presumed to be his greatest fans gave him plenty of chances, his gaffes and flip-flops made them doubt his sincerity and abilities. So Rubio may pick up a few billionaires and New Hampshire co-chairs, but he’ll also have one less stumbling nincompoop sucking up all the media scrutiny and one less decoy drawing fire from the aggressively anti-establishment, anti-“career politician” conservative base. The eventual Republican nominee, Mark Green, lost decisively in the Democratic wave that year and Walker was able to keep his powder dry and gain chits to eventually win election in 2010.

Nonetheless, Monday’s decision still came as a shock to many of those around him, including Jeff Kaufmann, the chair of the Republican party of Iowa, where Walker had once been seen as a natural favourite. In addition to refocusing on Iowa, Walker’s campaign made a last-ditch effort to energize Republicans by reaching back to the issue that had made the governor one of his party’s brightest White House hopes.

With other candidates in the race with strong conservative evangelical credentials (as well as Trump, who rightly notes that many evangelicals love him too) that constituency never materialized for him either. And even aside from the now predictable consecration as this year’s Midwestern savior, the rationale for Walker’s campaign was built on the fallacy of his alleged prowess in bending the Legislature to his will and dominating at the ballot box. On foreign policy, he insisted he could take on Isis because of his experience of standing up to pro-union protesters in Wisconsin in 2011 and said that the most significant foreign policy decision of the past 50 years was when Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers strike in 1981.

He even stumbled when asked about building a wall on the Canadian border, initially indicating that he favored such a policy and then taking a week to walk that statement back. The good news for Washington’s pundits and establishment Republicans is that there’s still some hope for their Midwestern hero scenario to come true in 2016. Perhaps, the most poignant moment was when he played cornhole, a game popular at tailgates where players take turns throwing beanbags into a hole in an elevated wooden plank.

Unfortunately, the Republican electorate seems mesmerized by “outsider” amateurs this year so far and Kasich is the embodiment of a lifelong politician who took some time out to cash in — he’s the fourth richest Republican running — and then jump back in to become governor, and then president. He also has a habit of diluting his hardcore conservatism with some pragmatic deal-making from time to time, which is unlikely to be acceptable unless he adopts some Trumpish attitudes about Mexicans and Muslims to cover it. Mary Bottari, a long-time Madison resident and editor-in-chief of the Center for Media and Democracy, was one of those outside the Edgewater Hotel where Walker made his announcement. “I’m a little surprised because he has a cadre of extremely dedicated financial backers,” she said. “For instance Diane Hendricks, and potentially the Koch brothers, who were very interested to see him and his agenda move up.” Walker’s own call for rival mainstream candidates to drop out and unite against Trump suggested he recognised it would take a different approach to dislodge the reality TV star from his perch. Other local observers agree that, for all its wealthy business supporters and impeccable conservative credentials, this campaign had passed the point of no return. “When you get down so low [in the polls] it becomes impossible to get that message out in a big personality cycle full of people like Trump,” says Batzel. He believes Walker’s decision will benefit figures like Marco Rubio, or fellow governors like Chris Christie and John Kasich, who can make the same claim to be both Washington outsiders and yet more experienced than the challenge from anti-politicians like Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.

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