Only five weeks ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced his presidential run to cheering supporters in his home state, promising to introduce himself to America as a fresh-faced fighter who would bring new passion to the Republican Party.
Then came Donald Trump.
“He can speak for himself,” Walker told Sean Hannity on Fox News after his announcement, declining to discuss his rival.
Walker no longer is ignoring the brash billionaire, whose steady rise in polls has forced all of the Republican candidates to reconfigure their campaigns. Walker joined the race just as Trump began his stranglehold on public attention, and he has struggled to draw notice ever since.
This week Walker all but embraced Trump by asserting that their hard-line views on immigration are similar.
“One of the things you can’t ignore is that he’s tapped into something very real,” Walker told conservative radio host Glenn Beck on Monday.
Walker once favored a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now he says that like Trump, he would build a wall along the Southwest border and like Trump, he would end the right to citizenship for children born in the United States to parents who are here illegally.
The comments pushed Walker further to the right on immigration. On Tuesday, he followed up with more traditional GOP fare by attacking both the Affordable Care Act and the Republican senators — four are in the race — who he said had failed to get rid of it.
The speech and policy plan — the first of many, he said — are intended to recharge his campaign and convince Republican primary voters that he is the true outsider who can break the political impasse in Washington.
“I’m willing to stand up against anyone, including members of my own party … to get the job done,” he told a rally Tuesday at a factory in Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis.
Until Trump’s rise, Walker led many Iowa polls and scored well in national Republican surveys.
But a CNN poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers released last week showed him falling to third place, with 9% of the vote, behind both Trump (22%) and retired doctor Ben Carson (14%). Another CNN poll released Tuesday of national GOP voters had Walker at 8%, tied for fourth with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“There’s certainly some pressure here to recapture some attention,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, who has tracked Walker’s political career.
Franklin said Walker was positioning himself for the long term, fighting with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over who stands the best chance to inherit Trump’s anti-establishment support if Trump’s campaign falters.
Walker’s proposal to repeal and replace President Obama’s healthcare law hews to general conservative ideas for expanding health coverage with Medicaid block grants to states and a simplified system of federal aid to Americans to buy insurance.
But the plan lacks many key details, including specifics on how it would be paid for. Any healthcare law that offers subsidies to tens of millions of Americans for health coverage, as Walker proposes to do, would probably cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
Walker said his plan would be “cost neutral” because it would impose taxes on high-end insurance plans and save money by turning Medicaid into a block grant program for states. That approach probably would require huge Medicaid cuts, jeopardizing coverage for millions of poor Americans.
In his speech Tuesday, Walker said he had to coax reluctant Republicans in his state who “didn’t want to challenge the status quo” to join his fight against public labor unions when he stripped them of many collective bargaining rights.
“That was the headline: 'Walker says it’s put-up or shut-up time,'" he said.
He similarly chastised Republicans in Washington for their failure to repeal Obamacare, a campaign promise that has galvanized conservatives but one that many party leaders have long thought unrealistic while Obama is in the White House.
“I want to be clear,” he said. “Americans want more than just campaign promises; they want results.”
Walker’s health plan promises to limit government interference while still ensuring affordable coverage for those with preexisting medical conditions.
It’s unclear how he would do that. Five years after the Affordable Care Act was enacted, Republicans in Congress have not advanced a single alternative, in large part because maintaining the law’s current protections for consumers while also cutting costs is extremely difficult.
Democrats were quick to poke holes in the plan.
“If this vague grab bag of conservative wish-list items is the best health plan the GOP can come up with … it’s the clearest signal yet that Republicans like Scott Walker are out of ideas and out of touch,” Democratic spokesman Eric Walker said in a statement.
Walker’s resistance to Obamacare is taking a rising toll back home, data show. An analysis this year from the state’s independent Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated that Wisconsin could save $360 million over the next two years if Walker agreed to accept federal aid available through the law to provide Medicaid coverage to poor adults in the state.
Walker’s proposal would maintain guaranteed coverage to Americans with preexisting medical conditions, a revolutionary part of the current law, though the assurance is more limited than what the law offers because it would protect only consumers who maintain continuous health coverage.
Like Obamacare, his proposal would offer tax subsidies to Americans who don’t get insurance coverage at work to help them buy health plans. But the amount of aid would be tied to the consumer’s age, rather than income, with older Americans receiving more assistance.
That is a simpler system, but it could expose many lower-income Americans to higher insurance costs than they now face.
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