Beltway Democrats may not deserve good luck, but it looks like they could have plenty in the next presidential race. Heading into the weekend, Scott Walker, a man born to be slaughtered in a general election, is suddenly leading the Republican pack in the Iowa polls.
Walker is surging thanks to his performance at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where the union-busting governor inspired raucous applause with his “I was a dick in Wisconsin, and I can be one in Washington, too!” stump speech.
Walker’s address was a broadside against a litany of conservative bugbears, from Planned Parenthood to the media to tax day to the subversive act of voting without a photo ID, etc.
But the money line came during a Q&A session. Asked how he would take on radical Islamist terrorists, Walker referred to his experience taking on pro-union protesters in his home state:
If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.
Walker’s seeming comparison of peaceful union activists to head-chopping Islamic terrorists drew a predictable response, with progressive groups like American Bridge sending out alerts denouncing his comments, along with outrage from the Democratic National Committee.
But the National Review also called it an “unforced error,” with writer Jim Geraghty taking special offense at the fact that Walker had forced him into a place where he had to defend, of all people, union activists. Even Rick Perry, not exactly a kumbaya-chanting paragon of tolerance, chided Walker for crossing a line:
These are Americans… You are talking about, in the case of ISIS, people who are beheading individuals and committing heinous crimes, who are the face of evil. To try to make the relationship between them and the unions is inappropriate.
In response to all of this, Walker’s campaign quickly backtracked from his statement, sort of. Campaign spokesperson Kristin Kukowski said that Walker was “in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS,” which sounded like a retraction.
But Walker himself denied making any offensive comparison, and blamed the whole thing on the media. “You all will misconstrue things as you see fit,” he said.
Meanwhile, the polls spoke for themselves. Politicians who make major accidental gaffes usually don’t see a bounce in the numbers, but what little data there is suggests Walker surged on the strength of this past week’s performance. The Quinnipiac poll, admittedly a small sample size and one taken extremely early in the game, shows him at 25 percent and lapping presumptive favorite Jeb Bush, who’s now limping along at 10 percent.
This came on the heels of another interesting poll. Remember how much abuse Rudy Giuliani took (even I got into the act) for accusing Barack Obama of not loving America?
Well, the Huffington Post took a poll asking America what it thought, and it turns out that while 47 percent think Obama does love America, the rest think he doesn’t, or they’re not sure. This remarkable poll also showed that only 11 percent of Republicans believe the President of the United States loves his country.
All of this data speaks to Walker’s remark being a smart short-term move, not a dumb gaffe.
Conventional Wisdom would hold that no candidate who’s on record comparing hardworking, law-abiding Americans to mass torture-killers would stand a chance in a general election. But in so holding, Conventional Wisdom would be missing the current point of the exercise from Walker’s perspective, which is to win the nomination.
And the sad fact is, you can probably win the Republican Party nomination doing things like comparing unionized state workers to ISIS, or hinting that the president hates America.
The entire narrative of modern conservative politics casts the United States as a fast-disappearing Eden of freedom and democracy that’s under siege both here and abroad, surrounded by a constellation of enemies united (for some never-fully-explained reason) in their passionate hatred for the simple, God-fearing, freedom-loving American.
It’s not just terrorists who hate us for our freedom, but lefty college professors, dilettante Hollywood actors, undocumented immigrants sucking up tax dollars in the form of entitlements, Al Sharpton, Jonathan Gruber, feminists, environmentalists who want to forcibly abort babies to keep more room free for trees, scientists who think global warming is real, the Manchurian President Barack Hussein Obama, etc.
The blurring of lines distinguishing these domestic political irritants and armed foreign murder cults is rhetorically popular and has been for a while. You can hear this pretty much every time you turn on afternoon talk radio. Here’s Rush Limbaugh’s answer, when asked which is the greater threat, the liberal or the terrorist:
Both of them — both liberals and terrorists — have a lot in common. The one thing that they hate the most is freedom… A leftist and a terrorist — a leftist and a totalitarian — are one and the same.
Fox’s Eric Bolling not long ago blasted campus activists for tweeting “Je Suis Charlie” when (according to him) many of those same people were anti-speech zealots who had disinvited speakers to their schools. “The same people want to wear these pins and tweet ‘Je suis Charlie,’ I am Charlie,” he said. “No you’re not! You’re more Al-Qaeda than you are Charlie!”
And then of course there’s Ann Coulter, who famously said this in a tirade against college activists: “Even fanatical Muslim terrorists don’t hate America like liberals do.”
None of this is saying anything new – people who aren’t Fox fans long ago grew used to being called traitors, America-haters, sympathizers with Osama bin Laden and so on.
The problem is that no candidate carrying this narrative around past the convention can win a general election. Even Mitt Romney, a politician so sunny and loquacious that he can make it sound like he’s selling you a vacuum cleaner when he’s actually calling black voters freeloaders, ended up capsizing his campaign on rhetoric like this.
The announcement that he never intended to “worry” about the 47 percent of Americans he believed incapable of taking personal responsibility exposed Romney as a politician who had no vision for the whole country.
Even if you’re lying about it, you have to at least pretend to have a vision for everyone. Yet the Republican Party’s own rhetoric sells half the country as a kind of domestic enemy. It’s a nearly impossible balancing act for a general-election candidate.
Scott Walker as a political performer is pretty uninspiring. He doesn’t have George Bush’s pretzel-mouthed Texas charm or Sarah Palin’s hockey Mom magnetism. He can’t fall back on an ethnic American dream parable like the one Marco Rubio can run on. He’s just a doughy, finger-pointing white guy of the type the Republican Party has been churning out to fill state assembly seats or run in back-bench congressional districts seemingly since the beginning of time. He’s exactly the kind of politician the modern Democratic Party is set up to beat.
This was supposed to be the election cycle that featured an inclusive new conservative vision, one that reflected the country’s changing demographics and would make the Democrats work harder for everyone’s vote. Instead, they’re churning out the same old us-against-everybody narrative, filled with the same insulting bromides about how they have a monopoly on patriotism and are apparently the only people in America paying taxes.
If that’s where this is going – if the Republican Party runs with someone like Walker instead of having the courage to tell their voters to stop calling the rest of us terrorists and traitors – then they deserve to lose again and lose badly. Forget about how offensive it is, that schtick doesn’t work anymore, not even for them.