Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been surging in recent weeks, and there is a sense he could be the guy to bridge the gap between the Republican establishment and the grassroots conservative base. But campaigns are crucibles, and if the last couple of days are a harbinger of things to come, he’s in trouble. Could it be that the governor who fought so courageously against Wisconsin unions might not be ready for prime time on the national stage?
No, I’m not talking about his lack of a college degree, which should not in any way disqualify him. Walker’s real trouble started when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani touched off a media firestorm by saying: “I do not believe that the president loves America.” Then, as Dana Milbank noted, “Walker, just a few seats away, said . . . nothing. Asked the next morning on CNBC about Giuliani’s words, the Republican presidential aspirant was spineless: ‘The mayor can speak for himself. I’m not going to comment on what the president thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well. I’ll tell you, I love America, and I think there are plenty of people—Democrat, Republican, independent, everyone in between—who love this country.’”
This was pretty weak sauce; he neither supported nor condemned Rudy’s remarks. If you want to know the correct way to answer this question—a way that both dings the media, and actually responds to the question appropriately, look to Sen. Marco Rubio’s response: “I don’t feel like I’m in a position to have to answer for everyone in my party who makes a claim,” he told TV station WPBF. “Democrats aren’t asked to answer every time Joe Biden says something embarrassing. So I don’t know why I should answer every time a Republican does.”
“I will suffice it to say,” Rubio continued, “I believe the president loves America. His ideas are bad.”
(Maybe Walker could have stolen Rubio’s template for answering these “gotcha” questions, which is to chastise the media before pooh poohing the wedge “gotcha” question—and then finish by pointing out Obama is a horrible president.)
Yeah, that didn’t happen. On Saturday, Dan Balz and Robert Costa of the Washington Post asked Walker if President Obama was a Christian. Now, I have no idea why this question was relevant, but that’s not the point. Good candidates know how to effectively answer or parry stupid or irrelevant inquiries. Instead, Walker made this a story with this answer: “I don’t know,” he told the Post. “I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that ... I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian?”
In case you were wondering, the correct answer was not “I don’t know.” The correct answer would have been, “Yes the president is a Christian. His policies are bad.” (Question: Why is it so damned difficult for someone to say that Obama is a Christian who loves America—and he also happens to have been a really bad president? Why not grant him this small concession? He’s never going to be on the ballot again, so why are Republicans still fighting the last war?) A slightly less perfect answer (but still acceptable) might have been, “This is silly. Why are you asking me about someone else’s religion when we’ve got a huge national debt, Iran going nuclear, and ISIS running rampant in the Middle East?” He gave just about the worst possible answer one could imagine.
As you might expect, some conservatives on Twitter are rallying to his defense. They’d rather stick it to the media than find a way to overcome them. They believe that Walker’s answer somehow heroically demonstrated the absurdity of the media. They seem more interested in a candidate who wants to win the argument than one who wants to win the election. And they are less concerned about Walker’s inability to appropriately handle the question than they were by the fact that the question had been asked in the first place. In their minds, Walker is some sort of folk hero for providing that inept answer. But I can assure you, that’s not how the majority of Americans (who aren’t conservative activists on Twitter) will see it.
Again, I’m not suggesting this was a relevant or appropriate question to ask the governor of Wisconsin. I just know how the world works. As the saying goes, I didn’t write these rules, I just abide by them. And, what I am suggesting is that, this is the NFL. When you run for president—when you leave Wisconsin and go to Paris and New York City and Washington, DC and Iowa—you invite all sorts of questions. Some of these questions will be tough, others will be silly or irrelevant or “gotcha” questions. The good politicians can answer them effectively.
Conservatives should be worried that Walker hasn’t proven capable of navigating these land mines. Make no mistake: The media is biased. There is a double standard. And surrogates and center-right media—not candidates for president—ought to call them out. It is still possible to triumph in this hostile environment. To win, conservatives have to be twice as good. The liberal media had a monopoly in the 1980s, yet Ronald Reagan still managed to be the Great Communicator. I’m tired of this whining and playing the victim card. That’s what liberals do. If Republicans are to win the White House, conservatives will have to take this advice: Learn to adapt and overcome—not complain about media bias.