Scott Walker: A Candidate Outside His Political Habitat

Scott Walker’s ascension to the first tier of Republican presidential candidates was quickly followed by the typical stumbles of a candidate suddenly thrust into the national limelight. After former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani stoked a controversy by questioning the president’s patriotism, Walker joined in by refusing to repudiate the mayor’s comments and later pleading ignorance when asked whether or not Obama is a Christian. While such doubts about Obama’s patriotism and religion are widespread amongst Republicans, the comments drew the ire of pundits and editorialists alike and forced Walker to play defense for a few days. In the marathon that is a presidential campaign, this minor slip-up is unlikely to have a lasting impact, and may even help Walker with GOP primary voters who sympathize with his viewpoints. The whole episode, however, does reveal potentially serious weaknesses with a candidate who is very much outside of his comfort zone.

Proponents of Walker are fond of pointing to his electoral success in Wisconsin, a state that has supported a Democrat in seven consecutive presidential elections, as an indicator of his broad appeal. The reality, however, is that Wisconsin is one of the most politically balkanized states in the country, and Walker’s success has less to do with attracting crossover votes than it does with his ability to motivate conservative voters. His strongest base of support in the state comes from three strongly conservative counties outside Milwaukee that constitutes the red half of an extremely polarized metropolitan area. Seventy-three percent of the voters in these three counties (Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee) voted for Walker in 2014, providing him with a 146,000 vote cushion in an election he won by just under 138,000 votes. On one hand, Walker’s support from these areas demonstrate his ability to turn out the base, which is obviously an asset, particularly in the primaries. On the other hand, these counties are 95 percent white, wealthier than most of the country, and rich in demographic subsets (i.e. gun owners, home owners) that are generally more sympathetic to Republicans. Given the struggles of Mitt Romney, the former governor of a comparatively diverse state, to reach voters beyond the Republican base, it’s hard to see Walker as a candidate who can expand the GOP’s appeal.

The native political habitat of Walker may also hurt his chances in other respects. As someone who’s built a political career speaking to the conservative base, he often has the benefit of communicating through friendly media outlets. The governor has a good relationship with conservative talk radio hosts in the area, namely Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling, and often attracted laudatory coverage from national conservative outlets during his battles with the unions and the subsequent recall effort. After watching the governor unnecessarily insert himself into the Giuliani controversy and indignantly chastise the press for asking him about Obama’s religion, it’s fair to wonder whether Walker is ready to handle questions from the national media.

These issues, Walker’s inexperience with reaching out beyond the base and dealing with the national media, will not knock him out of contention in the primary. The primary contests will reflect the Republican base and draw older, whiter, and more conservative voters than the general election. Contentious exchanges with the national media may even help his cause and build his reputation as the uncompromising conservative in the field. Beyond the primary elections though, it seems unlikely Walker will be able to address the problems that have dogged Republicans in the past two election cycles. The exit polls from Walker’s reelection campaign reflect many of struggles the GOP had in 2012, as the governor struggled to win over women, younger voters, minorities, and lower-income households. While he may attract adoration from the Republican base, at this early stage the Walker does not look like the strongest general election challenger for the GOP.

Governing in the Red: The Sinking Fortunes of Sam Brownback

Sam Brownback’s greatest comfort this evening may be the calendar on his desk reminding him that it’s only August. After weeks of bad economic and political news, the formerly-popular governor is trailing his opponent by 10 points and appears to be in the most difficult fight of his political career. As the incumbent Republican in a conservative state, it’s certainly possible that Brownback can recover, but for now he appears increasingly vulnerable, and Kansas has emerged as a surprising pick-up opportunity for the Democrats.

The primary cause of Brownback’s electoral malaise is his economic agenda, which he strongly promoted after winning office in a 31-point landslide. It included a steep reduction in state income taxes, sales tax, and certain small-business taxes. The governor predicted that, in accordance with the prophecies of supply-side economics, these tax savings would immediately be converted to economic growth, as people moved to hire out-of-work Kansans with their tax savings. Unfortunately for Brownback and the people of Kansas, this prediction has yet to come to fruition. Additionally, state tax revenues have fallen sharply this year, and economists are predicting large budget shortfalls in the future. The state may also face higher borrowing costs after both S&P and Moody’s downgraded the state’s bonds. S&P’s explanation for the downgrade didn’t do Brownback any favors, as the ratings agency said the state had “a structurally unbalanced budget” and that there would be “additional budget pressure as income tax cuts scheduled in future years go into effect.”

In addition to the current and future budget shortfalls, the job market in Kansas is hardly roaring. The unemployment rate has been relatively constant since the beginning of the year, and job growth during Brownback’s tenure has been lower than that of most neighboring states. Although the governor is fond of discussing the number of private sector jobs he has created, his job numbers exclude over 8,000 public sector employees who have lost their jobs. Regardless of one’s believes about the proper size of government, an unemployed government worker is still an unemployed worker. Brownback’s narrative of prosperity also benefits somewhat from the fact that his term began in January 2011, just as the economy was beginning to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. When you consider that the baseline for his cherry-picked stats is one of the worst periods in U.S. economic history, the tepid numbers become even less impressive.

Brownback has always been a politician with an ability to adapt himself to the prevailing political currents. When he was elected to the Senate in 1996, he was seen less as a conservative ideologue than as a candidate who identified with Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, the two relatively moderate Kansas Senators who represented the state alongside each other for nearly two decades. During his tenure in the Senate, however, Brownback became a leading voice of the Christian right at a time when the movement was gaining power within the Republican Party. After an easily forgotten presidential bid in 2007, Brownback left the Senate to run for governor of Kansas. Since taking office, he has made more headlines for this staunchly conservative economic agenda than for his moral crusades. Perhaps hoping that he would be able to embody the anti-government zeal that has consumed his party, Brownback has embraced tax-cutting policies that are more radical than those of conservative stars such as Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Paul Ryan, his former legislative director. Brownback’s idea may have been to build his credentials as a champion of limited-government so he could position himself for another long-shot presidential bid or, at the very least, a second term as governor. Unfortunately for him, his polls have sunk steadily along with the state’s revenue projections.

Aside from the implications for statewide government and Brownback’s political future, the situation is Kansas is an interesting case-study in conservative governance. As a popular Senator who had just returned home after a landslide victory, Brownback had a great opportunity to put it ideas into action and has taken advantage of it. He’s cut taxes, assailed the size of government, and enacted policies that even Jim DeMint could approve of. In an era where the Republican Party oscillates between obstruction and inaction, Brownback has actually sought to govern. Now the only problem is the disastrous results.

Warren @NetRoots

Elizabeth Warren’s Netroots speech got off to an interesting start, as she took to the stage to a predictable burst of adoration from the crowd of liberal activists. The political thing to do would be to take in the applause, offer a few thanks, and let the cheers build to a crescendo. Warren seemed to have no patience for the whole spectacle, particularly as the chants imploring her to seek higher office began to build. In a tone more befitting an admonishing college professor than a Senator with a national profile, Warren cut off the crowd, imploring everyone to sit down and, as the crowd settled, said “Let’s get started.”

Though Warren is a Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party who has generated quite a bit of national buzz, she hardly comes off as a politician in her speeches. She has a strong message that obviously resonates with the crowd, but the demeanor is less that of the politician seeking to sell a message than an advocate speaking for a cause. Although the depth of support for Warren’s non-existent presidential bid is generally overstated, her speech at Netroots provides a window into how and why she generates such enthusiasm.

The speech is laced with the values of progressive populism, repeated assertions that the political system is rigged for corporations and special interests, and, most of all, a determination to fight. At one point, she cited the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency she helped set up, as “proof of how democracy can work in the 21st century.” In an age when so much of the political oxygen and outrage is spent on denouncing the government, it sounds strange to hear someone citing an acroynmed regulatory agency as an example of democracy at work. She also touched on issues such as student loans, crumbling roads, climate change, and expanding scientific research.

Warren has expressed no interest in running in 2016 and is unlikely to emerge as the nominee if she does so, but it’s not hard to see why she has such appeal to the liberal base. While there isn’t any shortage of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, she’s also a tremendously wealthy insider who has spent much of the past two decades in Washington. For people who are concerned with income inequality and the increasing power of corporations and billionaires in the wake of Citizens United, Warren may offer a fresher and more appealing perspective. Furthermore, there is an opening for a progressive, populist voice amidst a political discourse that has been dominated for six years by Barack Obama’s slow-pulse liberalism and the anti-government opposition. Warren has the potential, regardless of whether or not she launches a longshot presidential bid, to emerge as a significant national voice.


Hillary Clinton Stumbles on Wealth Questions

After a presidential election in which the losing candidate was seriously damaged, if not defeated, by perceptions that he was a distant plutocrat, Hillary Clinton’s early stumbles on questions about her personal fortune certainly cheered opponents. Claims that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House and had “no money” rang hollow with the public. While their finances may have been stretched thinner than some may realize, there’s certainly no shortage of lucrative opportunities for an ex-president and accomplished first lady. She didn’t help matters with a later remark that they pay income taxes “unlike a lot people who are truly well off.” If Clinton is indeed going to seek the presidency, she’s going to need to find a better way to talk about being rich.

The “dead broke” comment was a tone deaf exaggeration that was predictably lampooned and met with general skepticism. Enlisting Terry McAuliffe to help secure a loan for a $1.7 million house isn’t quite the same thing as scrambling to scrounge together a security deposit for a post-White House apartment. The remark about those who are “truly well off” is a bit more innocuous when read in context, but still a comment that should’ve been avoided after she claimed to have emerged from the White House in poverty. It’s precisely the kind of sound bite that will be dissected by breathless conservative commentators and minced into unflattering headlines.

In the grand scheme of the 24-hour news cycle, these remarks are unlikely to be terribly significant in the long run. They’ll live on for a time in the conservative echo chamber but will eventually fade from public memory, particularly as other prospective candidates contribute their own verbal failures to the national discussion. However, that doesn’t mean Clinton’s initial missteps on this topic shouldn’t be cause for some concern. In the wake of a major recession, with income equality becoming a more persistent issue, and many voters convinced that the American Dream is no longer within reach, talking about wealth has become an increasingly important part of running for office in America. Voters can be forgiven for thinking that the millionaire candidate on stage who just flew in on a corporate jet from a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser may not be completely in tune with their concerns. While the Clintons spent much of their lives in public service and outside the upper stratosphere of income earners, in recent years they have earned tremendous amounts of money from best-selling books, speaking engagements, and other endeavors. There’s certainly nothing wrong with such success, but there needs to be a better approach to discussing it. Fortunately for Clinton, she has quite a bit of time to develop that message.