Scott Walker checks a lot of boxes as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, which is a big reason why he’s leading the early polls in Iowa. Pro-business conservatives like him for taking on the unions and cutting taxes; religious conservatives like that he’s a minister’s son and born-again evangelical. If there’s any box that he doesn’t fill, it’s foreign policy—heck, Wisconsin doesn’t even share a border with Canada.
Walker sought to address this gap Thursday evening at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference when he was asked a question on stage about how he would take on the threat of Islamic State jihadists. Walker claimed he was prepared to confront this threat because of his experience confronting thousands of protesters who gathered in Madison in 2011 to decry his push to undo collective bargaining for public employees in the state. “We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world," he declared.
The remarks provoked an uproar on social media, where many noted the strained comparison. After all, the teachers and other union members who gathered in Madison (and who have gathered again this week in response to Walker preparing to sign anti-union “right-to-work” legislation) were armed with signs and earmuffs, not swords and balaclavas.
Scott Walker: "If i can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe." There were... fewer guns in the #WIunion protests.— daveweigel (@daveweigel) February 26, 2015
Walker’s remark even earned him some scolding on the right.
Realizing he had misstepped, Walker told Bloomberg Politics after the speech that he had not intended to compare the fight against the unions to the fight against ISIS, but only meant that he had faced “that kind of pressure, that kind of intensity" during the protests. (He was somewhat less penitent in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal.)
In fact, though, this was no mere one-off overstatement or slip of the tongue on Walker’s part. Just last week, at the New York event where former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said that President Obama did not love America, Walker made a similar remark comparing the fight against ISIS and the union protests. Here’s Larry Kudlow’s account of the event:
Noteworthy, Walker argued that when Reagan fired the PATCO air-traffic controllers over their illegal strike, he was sending a message of toughness to Democrats and unions at home as well as to our Soviet enemies abroad. Similarly, Walker believes his stance against unions in Wisconsin would be a signal of toughness to Islamic jihadists and Russia's Vladimir Putin.
The remark was lost amid the storm over Giuliani’s comments and noted by only a few sharp-eyed Walker-watchers. It’s remarkable that Walker’s handlers did not warn him off of the incendiary comparison, but that may be a reflection of just how nasty and polarized politics have become in Wisconsin in the Walker era, that it would have been seen as perfectly natural to compare facing down thousands of his constituents gathering in the cold of an Upper Midwestern winter to taking on bloodthirsty, nihilistic terrorists rampaging across Syria and Iraq. Once again: to understand the sensation that is Scott Walker, it really helps to understand where he comes from.