Postmortems have abounded in the hours since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker dropped out of the 2016 presidential race. But rather than asking what went wrong, there’s another more interesting question worth pondering: What will happen to Walker next?
There is already one news report suggesting that Walker allies think he could still wind up the GOP nominee in 2016 via some sort of convention floor fight. This is nothing short of lunacy—the kind of idea that should have its promoters checking the levels of mind-altering substances in their morning coffee.
But if Walker’s prospects for the becoming the Republican Party’s 2016 nominee are even dimmer today than they were at lunchtime on Monday, his overall political prospects have not lost their shine, at least not substantially. Walker still has at least four viable options in terms of a future, brighter career in politics than what he has today.
1. Become the new Tommy Thompson
A lot of people outside Wisconsin remember Tommy Thompson for a go-nowhere presidential campaign that made him the George Pataki of 2008. Some remember him for running a less-than-ideal race against Tammy Baldwin in 2012, and losing.
But for Wisconsinites, and especially Wisconsin Republicans, Thompson remains a larger-than-life figure who occupied the governor’s mansion for 14 years and gained fame for reforming welfare in the state.
Wisconsin, unlike many other states, does not have term limits for its governors. Walker could, if he chose and did the hard work necessary to ensure it, become de facto governor for life. Despite what his critics say, there’s no reason to believe that Walker can’t keep winning elections in the Badger State, assuming he’s able to rebuild some bridges burnt in the course of this presidential foray.
So if he did become king of Wisconsin, what would he focus on? Presumably this is something he will be giving substantial thought to over the coming days, weeks and months, but he has seemed to gravitate to issues and policies that allow him a claim to be delivering for the “hardworking taxpayers” of his state. That may provide a hint of more spending and budgetary reforms, particularly on big-ticket items.
2. Get a Cabinet position out of a future Republican president
It is by no means certain that a Republican will prevail in the 2016 general election. However, more and more Republicans like our chances as we look at the flailing hot mess that is the former Secretary Clinton’s campaign and candidacy. Should a Republican win next November, Walker could be a viable choice for a Cabinet spot.
Conservative opinionators and influencers have been talking up the idea of Scott Walker, America’s most prominent union buster, becoming Secretary of Labor. But as gratifying as that might be for many right-wingers, it could also be politically untenable for an incoming president. Ditto for sticking Walker on the National Labor Relations Board (another idea that has traction in right-of-center circles).
Secretary of Agriculture, however, might be feasible, and let’s not forget that Walker comes from a state with a significant farm economy—so he does know ag. I remember well the night of the recall election, several dairy farmers who were Walker contributors gushing to me about him, and how focused he had been on agriculture (as well as reminding me that my grilled cheese sandwich was made possible by their cows.)
3. Vice Presidential nominee
Right now, this feels like a stretch, but bear with me. Yes, a lot of people who would inevitably be asked to advise on Veep selection have been deeply unimpressed by Walker lately. Moreover, some of them have real worries about whether certain individuals involved in his presidential campaign might be brought by him into any future job, and would probably want for the presidential team to retain 100 percent control over staffing.
That said, Walker still has a few things going for him in this category. First, he is a tried and tested attack dog—one who would do a great job as a lightning rod at the bottom of the ticket (and that does have its merits).
Second, he’s proved that while he can fire up conservatives and cause liberals to foam at the mouth (see the beginning of this year, as well as the immediate post-2010-election-through-recall-election period), he’s not so much firepower that he’d overshadow the top of the ticket.
Third, he still has donors who like him and his record, if not the recent presidential outing and some key figures involved in it.
Fourth, he has shown that he knows how to win in Wisconsin, a state Republicans would sure like to put in our column again—though how replicable that be in a presidential year is, at this point, hard to guess.
Walker isn’t hated by the party. His most recent outing did cause some eye rolls, raised eyebrows, and the occasional pounding of foreheads against tables, but that’s actually an anomaly for him. And everyone in politics gets that no one—not even Scott Walker with his pre-2015 record—can perform awesomely 100 percent of the time.
4. Presidential nominee… in 2020
Most Republicans don’t want to contemplate the prospect of Walker being the nominee in 2020, because it basically entails conceding that we’ll get our butts kicked in 2016, presumably by one of the worst nominees the Democratic Party has ever put forward after eight years of, at best, a meh occupancy of the White House by President Obama. I have to take a deep breath merely thinking about it.
However, it is far from a given that Republicans will win in 2016, and Walker should probably be conducting himself accordingly.
It’s hard right now to see how he comes back and wins in 2020. But the GOP has a history of nominating people who have run before (probably because they, like Walker, grievously underestimated how tough a presidential run would be the first time they undertook it, and prepared better the second time around). And goodness, even Mitt Romney managed a comeback and won the nomination.
Walker may not have impressed as a presidential candidate this cycle. But he’s still a good ways off the faux-conservative, gaffe-a-minute, RomneyCare authoring, robotic, weird-joke-making, awkward flip-flopper with daddy issues that was Mitt Romney after his ’08 loss.
Of course, the reason we’re in a position to be discussing Walker’s travails is because while Romney could win the nomination, he could not win the White House. Walker is, however, very different. While they were on limited display over the last few months, he does have political chops, a persona and instincts that Romney lacks.
He may strike some people as less-than-rock-star quality, but he has shown the ability to fire up crowds, whereas it’s hard to think of even one instance where Romney has done the same. He doesn’t say weird things like “I was a severely conservative Republican governor,” which sounds like utter nonsense delivered by someone new to the English language. He didn’t write the blueprint for a law that his own party wants to repeal, and which roughly half the country has a significant problem with at any given time. He does not read as patrician; he reads as exceptionally normal.
The bottom line here is that Walker has options. A lot of them. And they’re all pretty good ones, to boot.
But in order to seize on them, he needs to clear his head, clear his adviser pool, take a break, and get back to spending real time with his family and friends. Most important, he needs to assess what really matters to him, what he wants to achieve and what he wants his legacy to be—to Wisconsin, to the Republican Party and to America.