OpinionOp-Ed

Dance of the GOP governors

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Don't look now, but auditions for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination are already underway in Washington. And the flavor of the moment is — governors.

First came Chris Christie, the pugnacious governor of New Jersey, who won reelection by a landslide last month and almost immediately headed to the nation's capital for a burst of speeches and television appearances.

Days later, a less pyrotechnic (but equally combative) chief executive arrived to do the Washington media rounds: Scott Walker of Wisconsin. His message was the same: "If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can do it anywhere, even in the nation's capital."

The point wasn't subtle. As broken as Washington is, the next president should be an outsider, a hardworking governor, say, who has managed to tame a rebellious legislature and balance his budget.

It's a message likely to play well with American voters (and not only Republicans) who have long believed that executive experience is a better qualification for aspiring presidents than time in the windy halls of Congress.

Barack Obama was the first legislator elected to the White House in almost half a century, and his wobbly performance managing the launch of his own Affordable Care Act could affect other senators' chances for years.

Neither Christie nor Walker has announced that he's running for president, but — refreshingly — neither pretends to be uninterested either.

To many Republicans, yearning for a primary contest less chaotic than the messy epic that produced Mitt Romney in 2012, that field looks decent already: two successful governors — a relatively moderate conservative from the Northeast and a more orthodox conservative from the Midwest.

Christie's already nationally famous, if only for his battles with his weight (tamed last year by bariatric surgery) and his penchant for dressing down reporters (and occasionally voters) with words like "idiot." And a CNN/ORC International poll released Friday declared Christie the early front-runner in the Republican race.

But who is Scott Walker?

At a breakfast with reporters in Washington last month — one of the obligatory stops for any politician thinking about running for president — the taciturn, understated Walker joked that he's just like Christie but "with a Midwestern filter."

"I'm willing to speak out, but I'm not going to call you an idiot," he said.

Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who collaborated with Walker on a recent book (another requisite pre-campaign step), described him this way: "Moderate in temperament but immoderate in policy."

Walker, 46, was elected governor of Wisconsin in 2010 and, when confronting a budget deficit, made an audacious decision: Instead of raising taxes or cutting state services, he went to war with public employee unions over their contracts. The new governor initially proposed to eliminate collective bargaining, but he bowed to advisors who urged him to focus instead on cutting employees' generous benefits, which exceeded what most private-sector workers enjoyed.

The ensuing battles included a virtual occupation of the state Capitol by protesters, the flight of 14 Democratic state senators across the state line to Illinois in a failed attempt to prevent a vote and a 2012 recall election that Walker won by a convincing margin.

Along the way, he also cut taxes, turned the state's budget deficit into a surplus — and became a hero to fiscal conservatives across the country.

Now, Walker says, he'd like to bring the lessons of his experience in Wisconsin to Washington, even if only in advising his party's next presidential nominee, who he thinks (surprise!) should be a governor.

His message is that rugged fiscal conservatism can win support from voters in the center, as long as it's consistent, unwavering and focused on increasing economic opportunity for all. As evidence, he points to polls that show that 11% of Wisconsin voters supported both him and Obama last year.

"We need to do more than simply say no," he writes in his book. "The way to win the center is to champion bold, positive reforms that make people's lives better."

That means focusing on the economy and jobs and the size of government, not on the arid federal budget issues that have captured Congress ("debt limits are not relevant to people's lives") or even the social issues that have dominated Republican primary races in years past.

"I'm pro-life," Walker said. "I don't apologize for that. But I don't focus on it; I don't obsess with it."

Above all, capturing the center means reaching out to minorities and low-income people, he says, and avoiding the trap Romney fell into of dismissing the bottom 47% as unreachable for Republicans.

"Republicans need to reclaim their position as the party of upward mobility and opportunity for all," Walker writes, citing Ronald Reagan as a conservative who appealed to blue-collar workers as well as business owners.

Which is a fine idea, so fine that almost every GOP candidate in memory, including Romney, has said it more than once.

The challenge none of the potential candidates has met is to show how they'd do it. For all the critiques Walker and Christie have been willing to sling at Washington, they've been shy on specific remedies.

And Republicans in Congress, including Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, aren't likely to concede that a governor would make a better president. But at this early stage, the momentum in the GOP race belongs to governors.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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