Okay, this can be Scott Walker Day at QuinHillyer.com. This does not signify an endorsement, by any means, although I am certainly impressed by Walker. I’m also a fan of Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and others. (Speaking of which, please come back to this site soon for a similar interview with Santorum, who on Thursday released a new plan on immigration.) But since my NRO interview with Walker ran today, I figure now is a good time to run this guest column by DC-based writer Mark Stricherz, about a different aspect of Walker’s appeal. — Quin
SCOTT WALKER COURTS WORKERS
by Mark Stricherz
Could Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker become the “working-class hero” Republicans have lacked since Ronald Reagan? Or might he harken back even further, to the everyman appeal Richard Nixon built before his phobias and odd flaws brought him down?
Ask Walker, and he will hint he is the conservative populist in the race. After a speech June 21 in Washington, Walker told a LifeZette reporter that if elected president, he would seek to “transfer power of the hands of the elite in Washington and put it back in the states and importantly, in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers.”
During his speech as well as in previous and subsequent speeches, Walker has volunteered that he grew up in modest circumstances and shops at the discount store Kohl’s.
Ask conservative activists and leaders, and many will tell you they too see Walker as a conservative populist.
At the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference on June 21, activist Donald Reimer of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania was the most enthusiastic about the idea. The leader of a Tea-Party group outside Philadelphia, Reimer said he liked Walker’s authoritative style and pro-life convictions.
“I’m very favorable toward Governor Walker,” said Reimer, who insisted he spoke as a private citizen. “He was determined and showed character in office. I believe he is a decisive leader. I hope he runs for president.” When asked if Walker was the candidate of the white working class, Reimer agreed. “I think he knows the needs of the people and has been able to give it to them,” he said, before adding that he liked Walker’s opposition to abortion rights. “I believe that he is pro-life.”
Charlie Kirk, too, agreed that Walker is the major working-class conservative candidate in the race. A mere 21 years old, Kirk is the president of Turning Point, a conservative organization for millennials. Kirk was impressed with Walker’s tough stands against public-sector unions.
“What he did with reforming higher education in the state and his vetoes have been exactly what we need,” Kirk said, referring to Walker’s attempts in Wisconsin to weaken tenure protections for professors at state colleges and universities.
Conservative radio talk-show host Michael Medved was the least enthusiastic about the idea that Walker or any politician could represent the working class because he considers the term too elastic. Yet when asked if Walker was the candidate of the white working class, he shrugged his shoulders. “He has come across that way. Certainly, he has a serious record of achievement.”
Medved volunteered that the media have contributed inadvertently to the perception of Walker as the working class candidate. “One of the stupid things reporters have done is mention that Walker did not graduate from college,” he said, flashing a weary smile. “That helps him come across as a candidate of the working class.”
But Walker, conservative activists, and the press have overlooked a more substantive reason for his conservative-populist bonafides: His position on illegal and legal immigration.
As Milwaukee county executive, Walker had signed a statement that supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. Yet on March 1, Walker said he had changed his mind and no longer supported comprehensive immigration reform. “… (P)art of doing this is put the onus on employers, getting them E-Verify and tools to do that. But I don’t think you do it through amnesty,” Walker told Chris Wallace of Fox. On April 21, Walker said he was open to reducing legal immigration too.
“The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages,” Walker said to conservative talk-radio host Glenn Beck.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and real-estate developer Donald Trump reject a pathway to citizenship and have called for reducing legal immigration levels. But of the GOP’s top presidential contenders who have held elected office, only Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has ruled out consistently a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers; and Cruz supports increasing the number of high- and low-skill guest workers into the country, a position dear to the party’s business wing.
In other words, Walker has staked out a position on immigration to the right of every major Republican presidential contender.
Walker’s position on immigration appeals to more than conservative Republican primary voters, though. It appeals to downscale or working-class voters too. According to Pew poll in May, 35 percent of Americans without a four-year college degree said they think legal immigration levels should be decreased, while 25 percent of those with a college degree and 18 percent of those who earned a graduate degree agreed.
Coming across as a candidate of the working class is no small feat. Mitt Romney did not even attempt the harlequinade that George H.W. Bush did in his 1988 campaign by boasting of his weakness for pork rinds. But conservative activists and ordinary voters have shown they want more than a candidate who is an everyman; they want a candidate who has a key policy that caters to their interests too.
In 1968, Richard Nixon appealed to both constituencies by running as the “law and order” candidate in both the Republican primary and general election. Like opposition to immigration today, “law and order” was perceived by the Establishment as unenlightened and heartless. A massive race riot had broken out in Detroit in July 1967, and many politicians in both parties laid it at the feet of white racism.
Nixon had a different view of the politics of the riots: With crime rates rising, he grasped that blue-collar and middle-class voters felt scared. After the federally-sponsored Kerner Commission released its report on the causes of urban unrest in February 1968, Nixon denounced its findings and recommendations.
“It blames everybody for the riots except the perpetrators of the riots,” Nixon said, adding that its recommendations leaned “too much on Federal programs” to heal the ghettoes.
Nixon was not just talk. He embraced controversial policy positions, such as nominating conservative judges to the Supreme Court. And Americans believed that if he were elected, Nixon would enact those policies. As Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg wrote in The Real Majority, more Americans told Gallup in a September 1968 poll that they thought Nixon would do “the best job in handling law and order” than George C. Wallace or Hubert H. Humphrey.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan appealed to both conservatives and independent working-class voters by running as a tax cutter in both the GOP primaries and general election. Like opposition to immigration today, support for tax cuts was perceived by the Establishment as fiscally reckless, a violation of the green-eye shades economic worldview.
Reagan disagreed. In an era in which the top marginal federal rate was 70 percent, he understood that many Americans felt overtaxed. As governor of California, in 1973 he had supported Proposition 1, an initiative to roll back property taxes.
Although Prop 1 failed, Reagan received credit from conservative activists after voters approved its successor, Proposition 13, in 1978. “Proposition 13 was opposed by the same people who have their snouts in the trough. It’s the Boston Tea Party without the tea,” Reagan said on the night the initiative was approved to an audience in Denver.
Running as a leader of the taxpayers’ revolt and as a supply-sider endeared Reagan to conservative activists. “Reagan had a secret weapon,” journalist Robert Novak wrote in his autobiography, The Prince of Darkness, about Reagan’s primary campaign. “He was for tax cuts, and Bush was not.”
To be sure, Walker is not a clone of Nixon or Reagan. Walker does not enjoy the national-name identification that Nixon, a former Vice President, and Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, did in their primary campaigns.
Whatever the outcome of the Republican primaries, a Walker candidacy offers a tantalizing proposal to (white) conservative activists: They don’t need to tack left on immigration to win in purple states; they just need a candidate who comes across both personally and politically as a champion of blue-collar conservatism
Don’t laugh. Despite the conventional wisdom that Republicans need to support immigration reform to capture the White House in 2016, Romney did not lose Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, or Minnesota because of his position on immigration. As RealClearPolitics election analyst Sean Trende noted, five-to-six million fewer whites voted in 2012 than would have been expected to vote based on their turnout levels in 2008.
In short, a Walker candidacy offers two tantalizing possibilities for conservative activists.
One one hand, it could deliver sobering news. If Walker wins the nomination and loses the general, another major Republican presidential contender is unlikely to follow the electoral playbook not only of the reviled Richard Nixon but also their beloved Ronald Reagan.
On the other hand, a Walker candidacy could justify conservative activists. If Walker is elected president, the Establishment in both parties will have to concede they were wrong.