In the beginning, Scott Walker had a golden opportunity. Many of the skeletons rattling in his closet had either been hopelessly tied up in court, the case with John Doe 2, or aired and re-aired to the point of suffocation, which happened, if you remember, with the deluge of emails released related to the John Doe 1 investigation. A staffer down the hall from Walker, while serving as Milwaukee County executive, had operated a special router for evading records requests. Walker had brushed off all this mud.
When it came time to run for president, the biggest obstacle that stood in Walker’s way was Walker, who has an oddly backward-looking way of campaigning for and then conceiving of higher office. As governor, his greatest impact has been in rearranging the playing field on which local governments and school districts operate, largely ending the standoffs with unions he struggled with as county executive. His record related to state government is much thinner: The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has struggled with controversy; he partially walked back his early reforms of the state budget’s structural deficit; and the 20-week abortion ban came across as an afterthought.
Walker has always run on his last job, like the job applicant who preaches how great he did at his last post instead of selling what he can bring to the next one. In national media, his Wisconsin-honed habit of repeating a narrow message ad nauseam grew stale and brittle. Donors drifted away and so did voters. The Unintimidated story played marvelously in January at the Iowa Freedom Summit, a neat little 20-minute speech to a graying midwestern crowd happy to see him as the honest do-right pastor’s son. It was a great first step and great background, but he never established a stable foreground and instead shuffled and re-shuffled positions on abortion, immigration and ethanol.
Donald Trump stalked him from the beginning, delivering his own 20-minute speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit. America was getting its ass kicked by China, but he had made lots of money competing with China. And by the way, “I’m not a cutter,” meaning Social Security, if you were worried about that. Trump, builder of “some of the greatest buildings in the world,” also wanted to build a “real wall” to keep out Latin immigrants.
Unlike Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, Trump requires no thumbnail to identify him in the papers (e.g. “retired neurosurgeon”). As a shaggy lion of business and reality television, he comes with both foreground and background ready-made, even if that background involves repeat bankruptcies and the foreground is light on facts.
People close to Walker are complaining that Trump veered into his lane as the havoc-wreaking conservative populist, but Walker was never prepared to run a campaign that depended on so much invigoration. He looked sweaty and stressed when raising his voice during debates (and sometimes on the stump). Trump, on the other hand, comes off as bigger than the squabbles of the day, like he has energy to spare. Wisconsinites remember Walker as the placid eye of the Act 10 storm, not Teddy Roosevelt charging San Juan Hill.
September was a hellacious month for Walker. None of it looked good. Anyone watching state or national polls (see the nationals below) would have seen he was flirting with oblivion, mere inches from the Kid’s Table, home to the Rick Perry’s of the race.
Walker is used to executing comebacks in Wisconsin, but he must be tired of them. Here, his approval rating is down to his diehard base, about 40 percent, which is roughly how far it fell in summer 2011 after the Act 10 protests and a state budget filled with drastic cuts. He recovered in time for the 2012 recall, but it cost a lot of money; and voters were pretty sick of the process by the time it ended. He also had a striking narrative to sell to national donors. These days, more than anything, what he needs is to get back to work.