What Did He Just Say?
Meet Rep. Joe Walsh, the biggest media hound in the freshman class.
Joe Walsh, who has made more TV appearances than any other freshman in the House, is running late. It is not his fault. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to a joint session of Congress ran long—something to do with the 29 standing ovations he got—and as soon as it ends, Walsh bolts out the doors for his scheduled appearance at a Heritage Foundation luncheon.
He arrives a little bit after 12:25 p.m. He kisses the receptionist's hand. He trips on a partially furled carpet, and turns the trip into a sort of Buster Keaton two-step, as if he'd planned it. The host, Robert Bluey, tells the audience that Walsh is just arriving from Netanyahu's speech.
"Woo!" says Walsh, slapping his hands together and hot-footing it to his seat. His own energy level is at least 100 volts higher than the rest of the room. "It was a masterful speech! He taught us all a history lesson, like he taught the president last week. And is so refreshing to hear a leader"—he pounds the table—"a giant, in that room." He gives the crowd a preview of a column he's just written about how President Obama is "not Israel's friend"—that's its headline when it is published the next day—with some eye-popping words about why American Jews are so liberal. It's sensational and it gets plenty of attention.
Just about everything Walsh says is sensational and gets plenty of attention. In the week I talked to him, he challenged the president to secure the border even if took "moats and alligators," and had a one-way spat with Sen. Scott Brown after Brown said he wouldn't support the Ryan budget. When I interview Walsh in his office—it wasn't hard to schedule—the Illinois Republican explains that he really didn't have a choice.
"I know there are Republicans who are afraid of the politics, but this is the call of our generation, to do something about this," he says. "It's profound! And that's why when I hear that guys like Scott Brown or any Republicans …" He trails off and pumps his fist. "I just wanna hit them. Politely. A nice, soft elbow to the guts. Come on, what are you thinking?"
It doesn't hurt Walsh at all to talk about punching people in the gut. It's how he won his seat. It's probably the only way he'll keep his seat. Since being sworn in less than six months ago, Walsh has appeared on prime time cable news or Sunday shows 28 times. When Congress is in session, he can appear more than once a week. What the cable bookers get is an excitable, handsome freshman who will say anything.
On MSNBC, after the State of the Union, asked whether there should be a social safety net:
"No. It's not in the Constitution."
On ABC News after voting for the House GOP's funding bill—the one about three times larger than the compromise that passed:
"Keep cutting, baby."
How come he's on TV more than any other freshman?
"I think it goes to this," he says. "A big freshman class comes to D.C., and here you've got one guy that said a lot of things during the campaign and he's doing everything he said. He's doing things that strike some people as unusual. Sleeps in the office. Turns down health benefits. Turns down pension benefits. Believes in term limits. Comes home all the time, holds more town halls than anybody. And then he's not at all afraid to talk about these things he believes in. So he's not afraid to go on MSNBC or CNN and get into a good jostling." He racks his brain for any more reasons he's on TV. "I mean, I'm a white male freshman congressman. There are a lot of those! I don't know."
There are other clues. Nobody thought Walsh would win. He'd worked for the libertarian Heartland Institute for a while, run for Congress in 1996, lost, run for state assembly, lost, then gone into the private sector but didn't make too much money. (His net worth, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, is negative $317,498.) Before doing this, he'd taken acting lessons—"stage, film, a little TV." He raised only one-quarter as much as his Democratic opponent, Melissa Bean, who had seemed to turn the Republican-leaning district into a blue zone, even though a third party candidate kept splitting the vote. In mid-October, the Rothenberg Political Report confidently assessed that Walsh was not "good enough to take advantage of a strong Republican year." He got no money from national Republicans—not even the third-party groups that poured in cash for other longshot candidates.
He won anyway. In his office, he's framed a gift from a Tea Party supporter that commemorates his victory.
Margin of Victory: 261. For God, Family, Country.
Local Democrats were crushed.
"I'm a big believer in 538.com," says Mike Bissett, the chairman of the McHenry County Democrats in the district. "They were showing Bean had something like a 90 percent chance of victory, but predicting she'd only win by one or two points. I said, well, that doesn't make sense. And then he won. If I had to put money on it, though, it would be unlikely that he'd win again."
The reason Democrats think they can get rid of Walsh: Illinois is one of the few states where Democrats control every lever of the redistricting process. It would be incredibly easy for Democrats to redraw the districts in the Chicago suburbs to box out Walsh. The plans will come out soon; the rumor is that Walsh and other Republicans will have to fight it out in primaries for the remaining districts.
How do you survive a situation like that, if you're a freshman who was never supposed to win? It can't hurt to be the freshman who appears on TV more than anyone else. It can't hurt if you're constantly holding town halls—Walsh has done 31 of them, some co-organized by Tea Party groups and Illinois's branch of Americans of Prosperity. It actually doesn't hurt him that he's not introducing many bills. He's introduced three so far, but one is the Balanced Budget Amendment that House conservatives are going to demand as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Walsh might end up carrying the ball on a key Republican priority.
"We all have strengths and weaknesses," he says. "We are all better at certain things than others. I still am someone who doesn't understand the way the legislative process works. I do, but I don't. I can't find my way around the Capitol. I have a hard time with protocol. But advocating for issues and speaking in front of people comes easily. I'm a pretty good advocate, which is probably one reason why people are constantly asking me to be on TV to advocate positions."
If Walsh gets a few more lucky breaks, and he gets a district to campaign in next year, he'll have to confront another problem. President Obama will be on the ticket. Obama has never won less than a landslide in Illinois. He's always carried the Chicago suburbs. I ask Walsh why he thinks that's true.
"Look," he says, "I don't think this is complicated. He doesn't really have a history. I say all of this respectfully—he is the least well-known guy we have ever put in the presidency, and there's no one even close. He's probably got easily the lightest résumé of anybody we've elected."
Walsh leans forward and taps me on the knee with a bumper sticker.
"Why was he elected? Again, it comes back to who he was. He was black, he was historic. And there's nothing racist about this. It is what it is. If he had been a dynamic, white, state senator elected to Congress he wouldn't have gotten in the game this fast. This is what made him different. That, combined with the fact that your profession"—another friendly tap of the bumper sticker—"not you, but your profession, was just absolutely compliant. They made up their minds early that they were in love with him. They were in love with him because they thought he was a good liberal guy and they were in love with him because he pushed that magical button: a black man who was articulate, liberal, the whole white guilt, all of that."
It's jarring to hear a congressman say that, but there are a lot of people who agree with him. Walsh has a gift for saying out loud things that many Republicans believe but won't say, and he says them because he's worried. He'd been hoping Mitch Daniels got into the race. He wanted someone who offered voters the complete opposite of what they'd gotten from Obama.
"I pity the candidate running against him, because it will continue," he says. "That profession will protect him, and they will crucify whoever the Republican nominee is."
Republicans are sure that's what happened in 2008. A lot of Sarah Palin's appeal is based on a revanchist idea that she was blistered by a media that wanted to protect Obama at any Republican's expense. Walsh is the conservative who's absorbed that lesson and figured out that if you talk enough, the spotlight finds you.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.