Donald Trump has a street fighter’s instinct for locating and then jabbing at his opponents’ weak spots — Jeb Bush’s enervated demeanor, Carly Fiorina’s poor stewardship as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard or Scott Walker’s miserable economic record in Wisconsin. However, though some political observers have noted that the Wisconsin governor’s presidential candidacy peaked about the time Trump entered the contest for the Republican nomination, the Donald cannot claim credit for Walker’s swift decline and sudden exit from the race. Walker did it all by himself.
The Wisconsin governor was a great candidate only in the eyes of Republican Party establishment types who were looking for a backup to Bush. Walker had the right resume and the requisite hunger for the patronage of billionaire conservatives. (The Koch brothers were generous and enthusiastic backers.) The main reason he temporarily held a prominent spot in the crowded GOP pack was because of the media buzz and inside-the-Beltway spin pitching him as the party’s new hope. When voters finally got to know Walker a little better, though, all they saw was an empty suit spouting talking points that shifted from day to day — not very appealing in this year of the angry outsider.
Now that it is clear how false the experts' assessment of Walker has been, I need to note my own big error when, in a recent column, I compared Walker’s physical appearance to that of a junior high choir teacher. That was an uncalled-for slander of all the great choir directors and junior high teachers everywhere, made worse by the governor’s boasts that his war against state employees and teachers is some sort of proof of his capacity to face down Islamic terrorists. Any junior high teacher could have told me it would have been far more accurate simply to describe Walker as what he is: a career politician who probably hit his level of competence back when he was a county executive.
As soon as he declared his presidential candidacy less than three months ago, Walker began to demonstrate he was out of his depth. When an interviewer asked what qualified him to be commander in chief of the military, he talked about his experience as an Eagle Scout. Visiting the United Kingdom to bolster his nonexistent credentials in foreign affairs, he was laughed at by a television audience when he refused to say whether he believed in the theory of evolution. When Trump’s inflammatory comments about immigration began to crowd out other issues in the campaign, Walker waffled on the issue and ended up suggesting there should be a border wall with Canada.
As the gaffes kept coming and his lackluster performances in the two GOP debates did nothing to stop his slide in the polls, the wealthy donors who had built him up began to let him down, scattering to other candidates as Walker’s campaign ran low on cash.
In his withdrawal announcement on Monday, Walker said he had gone to church and realized God was calling him to lead by getting out of the way so that someone else could more easily stop Trump and advance the cause of conservative purity. It was a curious definition of leadership, but Walker was a curious candidate from the start. A legend in his own mind, he failed to recognize he was just a spare tire that establishment Republicans wanted to keep in reserve in case their first choice, Bush, went flat.
No matter how disappointed he may be that voters shunned him and the billionaires abandoned him, chances are that Walker still has dreams of another race for the White House one day. Lifelong politicians such as Scott Walker do not easily stop looking in a mirror and seeing a president.