When the results of the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll dropped last week, Scott Walker appeared to have the competition in a chokehold. Walker led the other Republican presidential hopefuls with 15 percent of respondents naming the Wisconsin governor as their first choice.
In a bunch of GOP hopefuls that’s packed tighter than a clown car, 15 percent is all it takes to distinguish you from the competition. And with Walker only having received 4 percent in the same poll taken back in October, a few journalists feel safe claiming that Walker is “surging.” But why?
As I wrote last week, Iowa doesn’t matter much in itself. Mike Huckabee won the 2008 caucuses there, remember–and that was before the Citizens United decision that all but destroyed the simple “one man, one vote” calculus of retail politics. To win an election, Walker still needs more votes than whomever he’s running against, but he also needs to tailor his ideological positions to ensure the contentment of the big donors.
Keeping a finger on the pulse of the base while at the same time a toe in the cash pool can call for some ideological acrobatics. That’s especially true when it comes to balancing the hawkish foreign policy of the moneymen against the restraint that a the Republican base is increasingly clamoring for. See, for instance, the rift between Chris Christie and Rand Paul. “I’m not sure you could put me in either camp, precisely,” Walker said of the split.
Walker’s reputation as a blue state union-buster precedes him, but what sort of Pentagon would he run as commander-in-chief? Walker’s ambiguity, in this case, is an asset. An ABC This Week interview with Walker over the weekend included this exchange with Martha Raddatz, about ISIS in Syria and Iraq:
WALKER: I think we need to have an aggressive strategy anywhere around the world. I think it’s a mistake to—
RADDATZ: But what does that mean? I don’t know what aggressive strategy means. If we’re bombing and we’ve done 2,000 air strikes, what does an aggressive strategy mean in foreign policy?
WALKER: I think anywhere and everywhere, we have to be—go beyond just aggressive air strikes. We have to look at other surgical methods. And ultimately, we have to be prepared to put boots on the ground if that’s what it takes, because I think, you know—
RADDATZ: Boots on the ground in Syria? U.S. boots on the ground in Syria?
WALKER: I don’t think that is an immediate plan, but I think anywhere in the world—
RADDATZ: But you would not rule that out.
WALKER: I wouldn’t rule anything out. I think when you have the lives of Americans at stake and our freedom loving allies anywhere in the world, we have to be prepared to do things that don’t allow those measures, those attacks, those abuses to come to our shores.
If that sounds like vacuous cant, that’s because it is. Walker has presented the least amount of substantive foreign policy articulation of any of the Republican candidates. Saying as little as possible makes his candidacy easier to swallow for people on the right who prefer a more realist alternative to the hawks roosting in Washington. So Walker strikes a quasi-aggressive posture against “America’s enemies” while leaving the details not entirely clear. Hot Air might be the substance in which politicians usually move, but we should be a bit more exacting when the stakes are high, and the White House and other GOP pols have offered substantial proposals for the public to weigh.
Daniel Larison at The American Conservative lays out the questions unanswered in Walker’s blustering:
If he were president, what purpose does he think would be served by sending American ground forces into combat? What U.S. interests does he think are so threatened that demand this response? How long would he be willing to commit U.S. ground forces to a fight against ISIS?… Under what circumstances, if any, would he be prepared to withdraw them?
Leaving these important questions unanswered is a great strategy for getting elected. It worked for Walker before, when he ran for governor of Wisconsin. As Michael Duffy previously wrote:
How the hell did Walker get elected in the first place? He conveniently kept his plan to rewrite labor law in Wisconsin on the down low, for one thing. He was the only guy talking to the workingman (and I do mean man), for another. He exploited the bitterness people feel toward the current system. He lied to them, of course, but he had a story for them, a narrative, as the pundits say.
Walker’s strategy for reaching the White House is probably only a slight variation on this—playing factions of Americans against each other, while catering policy to an elusive oligarchy.
Duffy also quoted Walker from a phone conversation with Ian Murphy of the Buffalo Beast, who called him posing as David Koch of the infamous Koch Brothers. Walker, duped and being recorded, told Murphy about his union-busting plans. “I had all of my cabinet over to the residence for dinner,” Walker said. “Talked about what we were gonna do, how we were gonna do it. We’d already kinda built plans up, but it was kind of the last hurrah before we dropped the bomb.”
If we apply Walker’s words here to his only half-articulated foreign policy today, they take on an ominous double meaning.