Scott Walker just can’t say no. And he might talk his way out of the presidency.
There’s a funny thing about the former Republican presidential frontrunner: The governor has a curious verbal tic—well known among some Walker watchers but largely ignored by everyone else—where, well, he says yes to everything.
Ask him a question at a press conference or in a gaggle, and he’ll bob his head up and down while saying something like “Yeah” or “Yeah, absolutely.” He says that the way other people might say “Um,” or “Listen,” or “Hmm.” It’s a filler word.
But here’s the thing: Not everyone knows that.
And it seems to be quietly draining the blood from his campaign.
You may have noticed this two weeks ago, when the governor struggled mightily to answer a simple question about birthright citizenship. That whole debacle unspooled because MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt—in a crowded press gaggle at the Iowa State Fair—asked Walker if he thought birthright citizenship should be eliminated.
“Yeah,” he replied. “To me it’s about enforcing the laws in this country. And I’ve been very clear, I think you enforce the laws, and I think it’s important to send a message that we’re going to enforce the laws, no matter how people come here we’re going to enforce the laws in this country.”
If you parse that answer, Walker never really says he thinks that the kids of undocumented immigrants who are born here shouldn’t have citizenship rights.
Knock off the “yeah,” and it’s a typical non-answer like the ones other presidential candidates give every day. His campaign tried to explain that he didn’t mean “yeah” when he said “yeah,” but with minimal success. And the candidate ended up having to pick up the pieces on ABC’s This Week, going on defense after days of mockery and explaining that he didn’t back a constitutional amendment regarding the issue.
It should have been a marquee week for the governor. He was the first competitive Republican candidate to roll out a health-care reform plan, after all, and his back-and-forth with a heckler was one of the most memorable events of the Iowa State Fair. But instead of taking a victory lap, he had to spend the week herp-a-derping about the minutiae of citizenship law. Take away that one errant “Yeah,” and things could have been very different.
Now, this certainly isn’t Walker’s only problem; he struggled to distinguish himself at the Republican debate, and his vacillation on the immigration issue has won him skepticism from all corners. But still, some of his worst moments on the campaign trail can be traced to this one little tic.
Charlie Sykes, a prominent conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin, made this case shortly after Walker’s argle-bargling.
“[P]art of this may be due to Walker’s unfortunate verbal tick where he answers questions with what appears to be an affirmative before giving his intended answer,” Sykes wrote on Right Wisconsin. “If a reporter approached him at the Paducah County Fair and asked Walker if he supported a federal plan to beat baby whales to death with the bodies of baby whales, Walker might reply, ‘Yeah…. But what we should focus on is returning power to the states and the …’”
Sykes should know. He’s one of the single most powerful conservative voices in the Badger State, and estimates he’s interviewed Walker hundreds of times since his early days in the State Assembly.
“We joke about it all the time,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s almost like a parlor game: What did you get him to say yes to, initially? Anything!”
In one case, the governor’s overeager affirmation turned into an attack ad. In the lead-up to his 2014 reelection bid, the state’s Democratic party put up a web video that showed the governor nodding yes as a reporter asked him if he was at the center of a criminal scheme.
“Abruptly, the audio goes out, the video goes to slow motion, and Walker nods his head up and down with eyes closed and sort of a grim look on his face,” summarized PolitiFact Wisconsin.
PolitiFact proceeded to give Democrats a “Pants On Fire” rating for the video, given that shortly after nodding “yes,” Walker told the reporter that, in fact, he was not a crook. But damage was still done.
Jessie Opoien, a reporter at the Cap Times in Madison who has covered Walker for a few years, said she’s noticed the same thing.
“If you watch him in a gaggle, he has this head thing down where he makes eye contact with everyone he’s talking to a couple times, like his head is on a swivel,” she said. “But if he’s answering you directly, there’s probably going to be a nod in there, like ‘I’m acknowledging you,’ and it might look like ‘I’m saying yes.’”
Wisconsin reporters have learned to disregard the early nods, “absolutely’s,” “yeah’s,” she added. They don’t cover those monosyllables the way mainstream reporters covered Walker’s answer to Hunt at the fair.
“If we did that here, we would be dicks for parsing every single word that he says, because we know what he means,” she said. “But if you don’t—it’s not the fault of national reporters to not know.”
The governor’s latest verbal struggle—when he suggested we should build a wall along the Northern border to keep out dangerous Canadian immigrants—is a variant of this tic. On Meet the Press on Sunday, host Chuck Todd asked the governor if he thought we needed such a wall.
“Some people have asked us about that in New Hampshire,” Walker replied. “They raised some very legitimate concerns, including some law enforcement folks that brought that up to me at one of our town hall meetings about a week and a half ago. So that is a legitimate issue for us to look at.”
Opoien chalks this up as another example of Walker’s over-eagerness to answer things in the affirmative.
“Him saying something’s worth looking at or worth considering is a really common answer he’s given on things like Right to Work or the 20-week abortion ban,” she said. “He doesn’t want to get nailed down on it, and he’ll say it’s worth looking at or worth considering or that’s something we’ll look at in the future.”
Walker isn’t the only Wisconsin Republican with this problem. During the 2010 midterm elections, then-candidate Ron Johnson got asked if he would support opening the Great Lakes to oil drilling.
“Yeah, you know, the bottom line is that, uh, we are an oil-based economy,” he replied.
Christian Schneider, a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, explained that the “Yeah” there was the same type of “Yeah” Walker often says. But Johnson’s comment—understandably!—became a Democratic attack ad.
“[S]imply beginning his answer with the word “yeah” ended up costing Johnson hundreds of thousands of dollars,” wrote Schneider. “RonJon had to write check after check to respond to Feingold’s ad based on his reflexive response.”
Walker doesn’t really have a good explanation for his “yeah” problem; “When I say yeah, I mean um” isn’t exactly great TV ad content. And, thus, some of his campaign’s biggest blows are self-inflicted.