After Walker: Will the GOP Reclaim its Core Message?

Scott Walker

Image courtesy of Scott Walker 2016

After Walker:
Will the GOP Reclaim its Core Message?

| published September 22, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

All those best-laid political plans and strategic playbooks, most of them written a year or more ago, seem to be worthless now. It’s like the old military axiom: once the first shots are fired, all battle plans become null and void.

Scott Walker’s surprise exit from the Republican race for President in 2016 is a clear and resonant indicator that all bets are off. The former front-runner and once top-tier candidate, having dropped into single digits and facing the possibility of a fundraising drought, suspended his campaign on Monday. He becomes the second candidate to walk away from the race.

One week before, former Texas Governor Rick Perry withdrew. The once formidable early challenger to the 2012 aspirations of Mitt Romney had also dropped very nearly off the radar, stuck in last place, according to some polls, and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire to crowds of less than a dozen. On the last days of the Iowa State Fair, Perry walked the fairgrounds virtually unnoticed as his campaign operated on fumes.

So much for the narrative of successful working governors challenging the status quo in a Washington paralyzed by gridlock and lobbying interests. Those two “establishment” candidates seem no longer welcome in the GOP’s still crowded and boisterous race. Their departures portend a nominating process which could get a lot uglier before it gets resolved.

The year started out merely interesting enough with the realization that voters—of both parties—are frustrated with politics and angry at elected officials and traditional candidates. This is not an unusual or unheard of condition; in fact, it can be a cyclical sentiment, arriving not surprisingly in the closing year of single party control of the White House or after a long period of control by one party of the other of Congress. It can also spawn third party movements, as it did in 1992 (Ross Perot’s Reform Party) and in 2000 (Ralph Nader and his Green Party candidacy in 2000).

Though chief insurgent Donald Trump, businessman and television personality, last month signed a “pledge” to not entertain thoughts of a third party run or independent challenge to the GOP (Trump is registered to vote in New York as an independent, and has switched parties several times in recent years), there is little to prevent someone else from slipping into the role of anti-Washington populist. Numerous legal experts have said, in fact, that there is little to keep Trump from doing the same, despite that widely seen document and its incorrect date.

Barring some major splintering of the GOP, party officials like Reince Priebus, Sharon Day and others hope merely to get things back on track and restore order in the room. In the spring, non-Washington candidates were aplenty, but still viewed as a novelty and an oddity—much the same way many Republicans judged Herman Cain at the beginning of the 2011-12 debate season.

But the current anti-establishment mood, for lack of a better term, quickly metastasized into a much larger phenomenon—a hostility toward anyone with credentials as an elected official, or, in the case of the Democratic Party, people so far outside of the box that they defy the term “establishment” or “traditional.” For the Democrats, this has presented a conundrum for the presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton—the former Secretary of State and former First Lady who has been running, more or less continuously, as a de facto incumbent with mountains of inside-the-beltway experience. If she is able to pivot into the ultimate outsider, it will be a remarkable changing of colors, and one unlike anything seen in American politics.

In the meantime, Clinton continues to take a beating in Iowa and New Hampshire, where her fortunes continue to fall, and where Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders holds a solid lead. Clinton is also losing ground to Vice-President Joe Biden, this despite the fact the The Veep isn’t even officially running.

Perry’s demise should have come as no surprise. Walker’s meltdown, however, sent shockwaves through the Republican establishment. Walker was strategically unique: a conservative governor in a solidly Blue state, and a chief executive who knew how to cut taxes, weaken public employee unions, and even look good on a Harley. Walker also managed to raise more than $20 million in less than 90 days of fundraising. For the GOP, the possibilities were endless. Walker was even proud of how he was described: aggressively normal. The moniker was meant as an insult, but Walker embraced it with aplomb. In June, Walker was even leading Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz.

But in the first two debates, often dominated by Trump and the other anti-establishment candidates, Walker fizzled. He was never able to get his message across, and on the crowded stage he faded into scenery. Facing a cash-drought and falling poll numbers as all three non-politicians soak up the majority of Republican support (Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson now account for more than 50% of all likely GOP voter preferences), Walker felt the right move was to withdraw. In his brief farewell message, he encouraged other Republicans to do the same. Walker never uttered Trump’s name, but it was clear what his message was all about: metrics. As long as the field remains crowded with too many center-right traditionalists and conservatives, the anti-candidates will ascend.

Walker also urged the Republican Party to reboot, and return to its once formidable core messages: lower taxes, less government spending, strong defense, an economy which works to increase opportunity for everyone. By falling on his sword, Walker hopes to draw fire from Trump, and perhaps draw the conversation back to the fundamentals of the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

But things could get worse before they get better. One potential beneficiary of Walker’s exit is Jeb Bush. Bush, like Walker, was a top-tier candidate, and at one time the party’s front-runner. The ultimate establishment candidate, Bush would nonetheless face understandable queasiness from some in the GOP over a third Bush at the helm of the party, and in the White House. Even Republicans highly supportive of Bush personally fear a General Election backlash in which Democrats merely use the specter of the previous Bush to batter the current candidate.

But Bush sank into single digits with breathtaking speed after Trump’s arrival as the media savvy businessman and real estate dealmaker quickly consumed the oxygen—all of the oxygen. Like the wildfires in California, Trump’s inferno spared no one, and Bush—in advance thought to be consummate policy wonk and the guaranteed adult-in-the-room if the debates went bonkers—quickly found himself marginalized along with everyone else. With Bush also residing in single digits, it is not clear that any one remaining candidate will benefit mightily from Walker’s exit. Some have predicted that other conservatives like Cruz and Rubio will benefit more than others, but this assumes an orderly and predictable migration of support by likely Republican voters—a state-of-affairs in short supply this year so far.

Former front-runners are now a dime-a-dozen. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, largely rehabilitated after the George Washington Bridge scandals of late 2013-early 2014, has also struggled to get his message heard in the recent debates. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was also once considered a potential front-runner and a harbinger of the GOP’s bright new future—a fiscal conservative able to get things done. Jindal is now mired near last place, tugging in a mellow zero to one percent, depending on the polling. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, also a top-tier contender and the heir to the libertarian stripe of the GOP, is on the verge of being marginalized as well. Current polls show him languishing in the 2-to-4 percent range, proving that the strength of anti-Washington sentiment could wash away even the last vestiges of the foreign policy non-meddlers and the libertarian free market conservatives. When Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee are seen as political insiders, the Republican narrative is skewed.

One GOP insider told us that others may follow Walker’s lead. Among those who may bow out in order to chill the insurrection: South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. Each are stuck near the bottom with about one percent each, and neither has shown any signs of upward movement despite better-than-expected reviews of their performances in the second-tier debates. Graham and Jindal each could throw significant weight behind an “establishment” candidate, or—and perhaps a better strategy overall—both could simply withdraw and advise their supporters to ask themselves the key question: what would Reagan do?

In the meantime, some analysts still believe that the air will slowly, albeit unevenly, deflate from Trump’s great dirigible. Trump’s debate performance on CNN last week started out in typical Trump style—guns blazing, insults lobbed, credentials challenged, wild haymakers thrown, noses bloodied. But Trump sagged visibly as the marathon, three-hour debate turned toward deep policy issues and nuts-and-bolts governance. Indeed, when substance dominated the stage and the discussion, Trump became silent for long stretches and even seemed mildly bored with the proceedings. There was a sense among those watching that Trump had met his match when the talk turned toward pothole-filling, educational budgets and highway repairs. As for foreign policy, Trump could offer only that he would talk turkey with certain people and make friends with some others.  Trump seemed more concerned with Kim Jong-un than he was with China, Russia, Iran or ISIS.

But Trump’s mild demise in post-debate polling seemed only to help Carly Fiorina, who was declared the winner on points by most observers. Is it possible that Fiorina will draw-in the so-called establishment support in the end? And if that happens, will the epic fight require Republicans to choose between Fiorina and Trump?

Related Thursday Review articles:

Scott Walker Suspends Campaign; Thursday Review; September 21, 2015.

Trump’s Lead Slides; Fiorina in Second Place; Thursday Review; September 20, 2015.