Scott Walker ran a bizarrely off-key campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
So it made sense that he would end that campaign on a bizarre note: with a tone-deaf attempt to portray his decision to quit the competition as an act of political heroism.
“Today I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field,” the governor of Wisconsin announced Monday. “With that in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately.”
Walker was not being driven from the race by low poll numbers and the prospect that his campaign cupboard would soon be empty, he wanted anyone who was still paying attention to know.
No. No. No.
Walker was leading by leaving.
When politicians fail to realize their ambitions, yet retain those ambitions, any spin will do.
In Scott Walker’s case, spin was all he was left with.
A presidential campaign that for a brief shining moment seemed inevitable had become impossible. And Walker was floundering about in search of an explanation.
Of course, anyone who had been following this governor’s epic rise and fall knows that the floundering begun long before the governor’s hastily scheduled press conference in an almost empty ballroom at Madison’s Edgewater Hotel.
The fact is that Scott Walker never knew why he was running for president.
He just knew that he wanted to be president.
Thus, every statement Walker made after announcing his candidacy in mid-July sounded exactly like what it was: a desperate attempt to make Scott Walker the interesting and appealing candidate that he was never going to be.
No one beat Scott Walker for the nomination—not Donald Trump, not Jeb Bush, not Ben Carson, not Carly Fiorina.
Scott Walker talked himself out of the running.
Before his formal announcement, Walker’s three years of positioning—rather than governing Wisconsin—had earned him something akin to front-runner status. He led the polls nationally and in key states. He had plenty of money. And he seemed to be the one candidate who genuinely appealed both to billionaires and to Tea Partisans.
With that formal announcement, however, Walker invited grassroots Republicans to begin paying serious attention to him.
Those Republicans were ready to be inspired, ready to be led.
But Walker could only offer them old war stories about wrangling with unions in Wisconsin.
That counted for something with wealthy Republican donors, who had invested tens of millions of dollars to defend Walker from the wrath of Wisconsinites who had been infuriated by the governor’s attacks on organized labor, public education, and public services.
But it didn’t mean much to the voters who would decide the winner of Republican caucuses in Iowa and the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Polling shows that support for labor unions has been on the rise since 2009; Democrats are more enthusiastic than Republicans. But 42 percent of voters who identify with the Grand Old Party now say they approve of unions—and almost one-fifth of Republicans now say that unions should be stronger.
There’s a reason for this. A lot of Republican voters work for a living, and a substantial number of them are union members. While grassroots conservatives have been instructed by corporate America’s amen corner in the media to be angry with unions and living wages and teachers and public employees, they have never been so enthusiastic in that anger as the billionaires who seek to build their empires on a foundation of income inequality and wage stagnation.
So Walker’s core message—union busting—never really resonated to the extent that the governor and his strategists imagined it would.
Indeed, it started to hurt him, as even his allies giggled at Walker’s suggestion that refusing to respect the honest protests of teachers and nurses and librarians in Wisconsin had prepared him to respond to the most daunting of global threats.
Walker had to come up with another line to peddle.
And that’s where everything fell apart.
As Walker grew increasingly desperate to connect with the party faithful, his campaign degenerated into parody. When he was not pondering the prospect of walling off Canada, or imagining that President Obama was responsible for worsening racial tensions, the governor started to engage in appointment-book “boldness.” Walker promised he would rip up the nuclear agreement with Iran on his first day in office. Walker promised he would rip up Obamacare on his first day in office. Walker said he might have to start a war on his first day in office. When none of that worked, Walker simply announced his intention to “wreak havoc” in Washington.
None of the “bold” gestures worked. The governor’s poll numbers trended down, down, down, down—all the way to zero in a national CNN poll released Sunday.
Walker found himself facing the ugliest threat of the 2016 campaign cycle: banishment to the kids’ table in the next Republican debate.
The man who had entered the race as a front-runner was suddenly pondering the prospect that he could be the first top-tier contender to be ushered off the main stage.
Walker knows enough about politics to understand that, in the new calculus of the 2016 race, banishment to the kids’-table debate is not just embarrassing. It’s a potential career crusher.
Walker, who has been an elected official since 1993, was not prepared to have his career crushed just yet. It may be true that no one else could imagine Walker as president, but the governor still could.
He was not about to fritter away future prospects by playing the “Dead Man Walker” role to which he was being assigned by the cruel fates of the 2016 race.
So he decided to “lead by helping to clear the field…”
Yes, of course, the line was laughable.
But he had nothing else to say.
While there was much talk about Walker running out of money, his elaborate networks of official and “independent” campaign operations still had sufficient resources to make a final push. Millions of donor dollars were still available to mount a media campaign to reposition the governor once more as a credible contender.
The problem was that Walker needed something to say: some message, some idea, some theme other than “derp, unions bad.” And it just wasn’t coming to him.
Walker had nothing to offer.
So he decided to quit rather than fight.
However, the governor who claimed to be “unintimidated” could not make a clean exit.
Unlike former Texas governor Rick Perry, who left the race several weeks ago with a measure of grace, Walker still nurtured ambitions. Even if he could not be the party’s nominee, Walker told himself, he could be a “leader.”
That is the sort of calculation that makes a political careerist spin his swan song as an act of political courage and leadership.
Unfortunately for Walker, Republicans who could not see him as a leader when he was an official candidate are unlikely to see him as a leader now that he is an officially an also-ran.