A lot of virtual ink has been spilled the last few weeks on the topic of Scott Walker and his as yet undeclared candidacy for president. He gave a speech in Iowa that thrilled the kingmakers. Then he surged ahead of the natural pick of the New England elite, Jeb Bush, in an early New Hampshire poll. Most recently he’s been in the United Kingdom on trade talks, where he punted on a question literally out of left field on evolution. All of this has the chattering classes, well, chattering.
The left has been busy preaching the orthodoxy, of course. Scott Walker is The Next White Hope of the GOP, with diabolical plans to drown the newborn post-racial world Barack Obama birthed. He’ll do this either by suppressing the vote or unifying whites, or maybe both. There will be plenty of dog whistles, nonetheless. And Walker will, of course, dismantle education from kindergarten on up to university, which he desires to do because he doesn’t have a complete college education himself and thus disdains education in general. The left is particularly rabid on this last point, to the point of being downright snobbish and mean about it.
The right, on the other hand, is sounding the alarm. The left is quivering in mortal fear of Scott Walker, they say. He’s being portrayed as the Great and Powerful Oz! But he’s really just a man, a self-made one, who just happened to win two gubernatorial elections and a recall attempt in stone-cold blue Wisconsin. And he’s just a family guy with a couple of ideas about how to go about dismantling those institutions set up or strengthened during the ascension of progressive—or is it liberal? Oh, we’re progressive again—politics of the last century. And this is a task that really needs to be done, they say.
Both sides get ahead of themselves. While visions of sugar-plum-sweet governing politics dance in their heads, Scott Walker is just trying to get in the game. He’s doing the electoral politics dance. And electoral politics are a distinct body separate from governing politics. I don’t think anyone truly knows if he’ll make it, and that includes Scott Walker and his entire team so far. It could all come crashing down with a well-placed source on one of those John Doe subpoenas being used in what is surely a targeted probe of a potentially strong GOP contender led by insider Democratic office holders (ahem) in Wisconsin. Make no mistake, there is a huge ground game that’s been flourishing for a couple of years in this probe that likely has the backing (and funding) of key national players on the Democrat side.
Now that I’ve bored you to tears with all that horse-race handicapping, let me introduce the idea that I really came here to talk about. Scott Walker has no pedigree, and lacks a college degree, which, in the parlance of the day, makes him a hack. Rand Paul, another heavy favorite in the embryonic field of electoral politics pre-2016, has one, but like Walker, he’s also a hack, a fact brought into startling relief by a recent WaPo article about that time he tried to start his own ophthalmologist certification board.
Walker & Paul are not what you think of as regular, professional politicians. They have little ability to charm the native population of Washington DC, or the electorate, and they aren’t skilled at finessing the game or of strong-arming their colleagues. These are not men in the mold of Reagan, or Bush 41 & 43. They are, however, the kinds of candidates that the GOP needs to win.
GOP Chairman Reince Priebus has been quoted as saying that the party is going all in for 2016—they need to win this presidential election, or they can sleep with the fishes on an underwater bench. Permanently. He knows that if they fail to win, his career, and to a greater extent the entire GOP apparatus, will be dead. To win, he knows that the party has to redefine the debate, and the electoral choices people make.
To win the presidency, Priebus must know that the electorate has to be sliced and diced in a way that is distinct from the way that Obama, and Democrats in general, have been doing. They cannot play the diversity game and win. With the election of the first black president in US history, they have no hope at all of peeling off that particular constituency, or appealing to the larger group of “people of color.” Democrats have spent the last 40 years and a considerable sum of money staking a claim on these increasing demographics. The Obama presidency marks the pinnacle of that long-term strategy, originally conceived in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.
The GOP and Priebus are not playing Ken Mehlman’s game, however. This is not the party of the Southern Strategy, and talk of dog-whistles is basically a dog-whistle itself—just the noise of the activist left priming the base for what’s to come. If Priebus is playing the game I think he is, he’s asked himself how he can remake Romney’s math—how do you beat the resonance of 47%? How do you change the argument from one of Democratic strength based on shifting racial and gender demographics and completely side-step the trap lain therein?
There are a lot of different ways to be the boy who came from hope. The narratives that helped Clinton & Obama get elected are narratives that cast them as imperfect men who, through the unique system of government set up in America, have been able to transcend through grit & determination, who fought their way to be eligible for the highest office in the land. Clinton & Obama were not far off from you and me, so the story went, though of course they were, just by virtue of their degrees from the Ivy League.
What Walker & Paul represent are candidates who can go one step farther with their narratives. They are not of the Ivy League at all. They are men who don’t need to precious institutions of the left or the elite. Because they were not brought up through that system, they can see that America might have a different destiny than the American elite have planned for us—and how that destiny can be achieved. There is the kernel of broad appeal in this simple fact. Walker has spent the last four years putting the theory to practice.
More importantly, there are millions more people who are currently politically disengaged, who could identify with either candidate. Forget the 47%. Only about
92% 78% of Americans students graduate high school. Just over 65% of them go on to college. Only 56% of those folks even graduate college. So the vast majority of Americans don’t complete college, if they even go. In the 21st century economy, with exorbitant tuition and student debt loads what they are, an increasing number of people who traditionally would be college-bound are deciding it isn’t worth it. Enrollment rates are dropping. There are more non-graduates than there are graduates, and their numbers are increasing. Then there’s your tech class, who don’t need college educations to be successful, and who lean libertarian.
What these populations translate to is a different kind of map than what Democrats have worked so hard to draw. Activating this map is what the GOP is attempting to exploit with the likes of Scott Walker & Rand Paul. Between the two of them, they have the potential to prompt the kind of groundswell that could lead to a Republican resurgence at the national level.
Rand Paul will bring with him key constituencies that his father, Ron Paul, collected over a political lifetime, and he will appeal to many of the libertarian-left constituencies who oppose the surveillance state because of his vocal opposition to it. He speaks to a deeply dissatisfied and eclectic group of people, not all of whom have been politically active. The activist-left may laugh at his attempt to create an independent accrediting body for his profession, but there are many people shut out of their dreams by the likes of the kind of professional associations he sought to rebel against.
Walker, for his part, brings to the map the alienated masses of working class and middle class workers who have been shut out of political and economic games for a long time, and who have been demoralized into silence for the better part of a generation. Many have been alienated because they haven’t received the right credentials from the right institutions, and have had to zigzag their way across the unlevel field of American opportunity. These folks will feel a heightened sense of persecution and protectiveness if the Democratic base continues to blast its institutional orthodoxy.
It’s a long road to the first primaries of 2016, and a lot could happen. The GOP will need more than candidates with personal narratives people can identify with. Such narratives are not the sum total of the entire purse laid on the poker table. The party is also going to have to work at sophisticated micro-messaging and targeted GOTV efforts, which they have already experimented with in 2014. They’ll also need to employ a technique the left has perfected, specifically the provocation of pubic episodes of the worst inclinations of the opposition. Scott Walker in particular appears to be working that angle pretty well these last couple of weeks.
Note: GIF via