Pandering Is Hard

Scott Walker’s Many Answers on Gay Rights

Suffice it to say the Wisconsin governor and 2016 hopeful has a hard time explaining his views on the subject.

David Becker/Reuters

It’s safe to say LGBT issues are not Scott Walker’s favorite conversation topic.

Questions about various aspects of the gay-rights debate have frequently tripped him up on the campaign trail—most recently during an interview on CNN when he was asked whether being gay was a choice.

“Oh, I mean, I think that’s—that’s not even an issue for me to be involved in,” the Wisconsin governor said. “The bottom line is, I’m going to stand up and work hard for every American, regardless of who they are, no matter where they come from, no matter what their background, I’m going to fight for people, whether they vote for me or not.”

“To act on behalf of people is, to do that properly, you have to understand or at least have an opinion on who they are and where they’re coming from,” reporter Dana Bash replied.

“I don’t have an opinion on every single issue out there,” Walker continued. “I mean, to me, that’s, I don’t know,” Walker answered. “I don’t know the answer to that question.”

The born-gay question wasn’t the only issue putting the governor in a bit of a quandary; his much-chronicled comments on whether or not the Boy Scouts should let gay men serve as scoutmasters created a bit of a hullabaloo. The governor initially told IJReview that he supported the exclusionary policy “because it protected children and advanced scout values.”

His campaign team promptly walked that back, countering the implication that gay men put Boy Scouts in danger.

“The previous policy protected Scouts from the rancorous political debate over policy issues and culture wars,” said campaign spokeswoman Ashlee Strong. “Scouts should not be used as a political football on issues that can often be heated and divisive.”

Walker also has given curious answers to questions about attending a gay wedding. His son Alex was a witness at the wedding of his wife’s cousin to her same-sex partner; Walker went to the reception.

“I haven’t been to a wedding,” he said in April at a press conference in New Hampshire, referring to same-sex ceremonies. “That’s true even though my position on marriage is still that’s defined between a man and a woman, and I support the Constitution of the state. But for someone I love, we’ve been at a reception.”

Walker may be no better at discussing the issue in private. The Washington Post reported in June that one Republican billionaire hedge fund manager withdrew support for the governor after the two had a long argument about the issue.

And the governor also recently suggested that reporters had for weeks been inaccurately describing his wife’s stance on gay marriage.

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So what gives?

Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), an openly gay member of Congress who worked with Walker when they were both members of the state Assembly, suggested his confusion might have more to do with his political profile than his position on LGBT rights.

“I’m trying to decide if it’s just extreme pandering or unfortunate ignorance,” he said. “Most people quit thinking that way in the ’60s and ’70s.”

He added, “I think the best question that someone should ask him is, ‘Well, when did you decide to be straight,’ Governor Walker?”

Walker’s tone is a significant departure from their days in the Assembly, Pocan said.

“He never displayed that depth of ignorance when he was in the legis or as governor,” he continued. “He certainly talked a tough game when it came to issues like marriage equality, but he never put that large of a display of misinformation out there at the time.”

Wisconsin social conservatives seem confident that the governor’s equivocation on the question of whether or not people are born gay doesn’t have any bearing on his opposition to same-sex marriage.

“There’s all kinds of issues that presidential candidates are asked about,” said Julaine Appling, who heads the socially conservative group Wisconsin Family Action. “The governor and I may have some differences of opinion on some of the things, but when it comes down to what he’s done to support the marriage amendment, that it’s specifically between one man and woman in this state, his track record speaks for itself.”

During his first gubernatorial campaign, Walker adamantly supported the state legislature’s push to pass a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man-one woman couples. That effort was successful and he defended the amendment in court, though its backers ultimately lost.

It wasn’t his only time fighting same-sex marriage rights. He also consistently opposed efforts to provide benefits to the same-sex partners of state and county employees, as the Human Rights Campaign documents in their Walker dossier.

But since the state’s marriage amendment lost in court, he’s shown little verve to discuss LGBT issues.

On Meet the Press in March 2013, he said young Republican voters “don’t want to get focused on those issues.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported he had an awkward exchange with Wisconsin reporters in June 2014 when he suggested that his view on same-sex marriage rights doesn’t matter and that he didn’t want to talk about it at all.

On top of that, he told Bloomberg in 2013 that a proper balance of rights for LGBT people would protect them from discrimination in the workplace but also keep them from marrying. That’s how Wisconsin handled gay rights, he said, and that’s the way to do it.

“We’ve had no problems—or I should say, limited problems—with that,” he said, referring to the state’s employment protection law. “At the same time, we still have a constitutional amendment that defines marriage. There’s a healthy balance there.”

So Walker’s record on LGBT issues was a little more nuanced than, say, Rick Santorum’s.

But after the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed, Walker came out in favor of amending the U.S. Constitution to give states the right to prohibit such unions. And as for the social conservative leaders he needs to woo in order to do well in Iowa? They loved it.

Then there’s the views of his wife, Tonette.

In an interview with The Washington Post published on July 5, she suggested that she disagrees with the governor on the question of whether or not same-sex couples should be able to marry.

“That was a hard one,” she told the paper. “Our sons were disappointed. ...  I was torn. I have children who are very passionate [in favor of same-sex marriage], and Scott was on his side very passionate.”

“It’s hard for me because I have a cousin who I love dearly—she is like a sister to me—who is married to a woman, her partner of 18 years,” she said.

That was widely seen as an endorsement of same-sex marriage. Two weeks later, on July 13, ABC News reported that as uncontroversial fact.

“They were all on one side, Dad on the other,” said host David Muir when talking about the family’s views on the issue.

So there it was: Scott Walker’s wife backed same-sex marriage. At The Daily Caller, Matt Lewis wrote a column suggesting that this might give some social conservatives pause. And Iowa conservative radio talk show host Steve Deace said the Walker family’s support for same-sex marriage concerned him (“That’s not good,” he told The Daily Beast).

But on Sunday, July 19—two weeks after The Washington Post suggested Tonette favored same-sex marriage—Walker told CBN News’s David Brody that, actually, all those reports were wrong, and she’s actually against letting same-sex couples marry.

“My wife actually supports my position,” he told Brody during an interview with Brody on his campaign bus. “She pointed out she was torn by the fact that she’s got me with a position and she’s got others family members in different position, but being emotionally torn doesn’t mean that she’s got a difference of opinion.”

But what is that position exactly? It’s complicated.