Scott Walker is taking a stand against campaign gotcha questions. All praise to him! It’s a noble goal, and a posture that’s very hard to sustain.
When two Washington Post reporters asked the Wisconsin governor if he thought President Obama was a Christian, he refused to answer on account of it not having anything to do with anything. “To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press,” he replied. (Nice of him to say “increasingly … dislike the press,” as if that condition were still in transition as opposed to frozen in amber). “The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”
Walker then tweeted:
Enough with the media's gotcha game, we started Our American Revival to talk about big, bold ideas: http://t.co/VRGXvNi76E— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) February 22, 2015
The link takes you to a page on Walker’s super PAC site set up specifically for those who are upset by the press’s questions.
The challenge for a new presidential candidate is not limited to coming up with a cogent answer for how you would win the war against ISIS or raise wages. You’ve also got to come up with a strategy for handling the circus. You can engage, duck, or turn it to your advantage. Walker is trying to transform a duck into a weapon by making the press an issue.
Walker has had a heavy dose of silliness recently. Two weeks ago, on a trade mission to London, he was asked about his position on evolution, which has nothing to do with the subject of trade. He responded that he would duck the issue. Last week he was repeatedly asked to respond to remarks former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made about President Obama not loving America because of the way he was brought up. Now he’s having to weigh in on the Christianity question.
This presents a fascinating experiment. Walker is trying to run his race on his terms. Every candidate tries to escape the tests of campaign life that they find clownish. Remember when Barack Obama briefly tried to argue that whether or not you wore a flag pin was not a sign of your patriotism? They usually fail for a series of reasons.
The first is that what seems silly can sometimes have traction with voters. It’s the silly stuff that breaks through and defines a candidate because people don’t always spend weeks looking over the position papers on their websites or studying their speeches. Or, the silly stuff sets a first impression that sticks. That’s why George Bush’s campaign in 2004 promoted pictures of John Kerry windsurfing in what one aide at the time called a “diaper.” The senator looked funny and that was powerful. It was on this basis that conservative columnist George Will said on Fox News about Walker: “There are certain questions that if you are going to answer them, you answer them ‘Yes.’ Do you believe in evolution: Yep! Is the president patriotic: Yes.’ And then you go on to something else.”
A corollary to this is that once you make a stand against silly gotcha questions, it theoretically makes it harder for you to exploit the same frivolous pap when that’s what's tripping up your opponents and causing their collapse in the polls.
Also, signing yourself up only for serious questions is hard, particularly if you’ve been a governor and some of those issue areas are unfamiliar. This is what caused Walker problems with ABC’s Martha Raddatz. He said he had bold solutions, but when she asked him what bold new solutions he had for combating ISIS in Syria, his answer was neither bold nor new.
There are endless policy questions and a host of questions about the attributes required for the presidency that are nettlesome. Plus there are the hypothetical questions about situations Walker might face as president that should keep us all engaged for months. The silly questions are the ones that give you a break from the searing questions that you've just now promised you’ve committed yourself to in your declaration against the frivolous and obscure. Duck those hard questions now that you’ve declared yourself guardian of the important and people are going to think you’re trying to trick them.
Finally, not playing in the silly season requires a pact with your opponents. You all have to agree on what’s silly. If they all answer a question that you’re labeling as a gotcha, it causes two problems. It makes it look like your stance against the media’s dull inquiries is just a fancy avoidance maneuver and it makes it look like you lack the fortitude to answer the question as easily as your opponents did.
That is where Walker finds himself on the question of Rudy Giuliani's intemperate remarks. When Walker was asked to react to the former mayor’s claim that the president didn’t love America because of his upbringing, he avoided the question and testified to his own love of America. It was a safe nonanswer. In the ensuing days, Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rand Paul, Gov. Mike Pence, Gov. Rick Perry, and Gov. Bobby Jindal all gave actual answers. They all said they were sure the president loved the country but it was his policies they disagreed with. Pence and Paul made a broader point about opposing the practice of questioning a political opponent’s motives. Now, even Giuliani is backing down from his own remarks in a Wall Street Journal op-ed trying to revise and extend his remarks.
No Republican primary voter will remember this in a week or so. No significant number of Republican primary voters are going to see it as a moral failing on Walker’s part. But his reticence does suggest a timidity and caution at this stage in his campaign. That could be prudence and Walker is arguably the riskiest Republican politician in America having taken on the unions and survived a bruising re-election that resulted from it. But in a campaign these gotcha moments are not always worth avoiding. A good politician can take advantage of them. Walker is not well defined. Nearly 60 percent of Republicans in a recent CBS poll say they don’t know enough about him. When the spotlight turns—even if it is for stupid reasons—a successful candidate grabs the moment to set himself apart. Walker missed his first opportunity.
There is a way this could have been done in fielding the question about Giuliani. Of course the president loves the country and like many dysfunctional relationships, he harms the ones he loves the most. It’s a silly, somewhat small answer, but it would have been favorably repeated in the GOP clubhouse, building on Walker’s already strong reputation. Or, Walker could have responded by really backing up Rudy. The truth hurts doesn't it? Either way, these kinds of answers are only possible if the silly season is seen as an opportunity and not a burden.
When you click through to Walker’s website, it contains a quote from Ronald Reagan. Thirty-five years ago this week Reagan may have changed the trajectory of his campaign by knowing how to take advantage of a silly moment. In a debate in Nashua, New Hampshire, the debate moderator tried to cut off his microphone in a pre-debate argument over the rules of who could participate. (Full story here in the Whistlestop podcast). Reagan, who had paid for the debate to get around FEC rules, exploded, “I paid for this microphone.” The crowd went wild and it was seen as glorious demonstration of his character, toughness, and leadership. The issue at hand didn’t have anything to do with the issues people cared about. The confrontation was a silly bit of staged theater, and Reagan went on to win the primary by 27 points over George H. W. Bush and take all but five of the next 33 contests.