The reason for Scott Walker’s recent rise in the early stages of the 2016 Republican primary contest isn’t his stunning personal charisma, his inspiring life story, or his extraordinary rhetorical gifts. He’s getting more attention because unlike most of the contenders, he seems like a candidate who can unite establishment Republicans and grassroots Republicans, appealing equally to both. You can see it in a pair of articles out on him today: this one in the Post on how he crushed labor unions in Wisconsin, and this one in the New York Times on how he has been emphasizing the divisive social issues like abortion that he played played down in his races in the state.
But most of the attention Walker has been getting in the last few days has been about his relationship to the Republican fever swamp, the place where Barack Obama is a Muslim foreigner on a mission to destroy America, the country he despises.
Walker has been rather inelegantly dancing around questions about the president, and the Democrats calling attention to each clunky step may be hoping that this will be a liability should Walker become the GOP nominee. But they might not want to get their hopes up too high. Republican candidates seldom lose the presidency because they’re too ideologically or temperamentally right-wing.
Let’s review what has happened in the last few days. First, Rudy Giuliani stood up at an event for Walker and said, “I do not believe that the president loves America…he wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Walker got upbraided for not saying anything then, or even after, when he refused to say whether he thinks Barack Obama loves America. (In a comically disingenuous op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, Giuliani writes that “I didn’t intend to question President Obama’s motives or the content of his heart.” Of course not!)
Then a pair of Post reporters asked Walker about Obama’s religious affiliation, another topic of insane fantasies of otherness among the Republican base, and Walker responded that he doesn’t know what religion Obama is. Given all the attention that’s been paid to the question of Obama’s religion, including the 2008 controversy over his pastor, it’s simply impossible to believe that Walker isn’t quite sure whether Obama is a Christian; the only logical purpose of professing ignorance is as a signal to the unhinged in his party that he too may suspect that Obama is a secret Muslim.
The most common interpretation of these events is that Walker could be endangering his general election viability by embracing the Obama conspiracy theories, or at least giving them a wink and a nod. As NBC News put it, “Few issues fire up a good chunk of conservatives more than personal attacks against President Obama. At the same time, these attacks also turn off swing voters and minorities that the Republican Party is trying to court.” It seems hard to disagree. But how much does this kind of thing really turn off swing voters? It’s a question that may be more complicated than it first appears.
Swing voters may be alienated by such talk. But by the time election day finally comes around, the question of whether the Republican candidate is a wild-eyed extremist may not matter much to them.
It isn’t just that ideology matters less than factors like the economy in voters’ judgments, though it does. When it comes to arguments about personality, Democrats know how make some of them well. The attacks on Mitt Romney for only caring about the wealthy, for instance, followed a template that Democrats use in almost every presidential election, usually with at least some success. But when was the last time they successfully painted the Republican nominee as someone who couldn’t be trusted because he was an extremist?
They’ve certainly tried, but the criticism seldom has much of an impact. The last time that attack brought down a Republican candidate was 1964, when Lyndon Johnson made Barry Goldwater out to be a maniac who would pull the United States into a global nuclear war. You could argue that Bill Clinton did something similar in 1996 to Bob Dole, who was practically renamed DoleGingrich and tarred with the reckless Republican Congress. But on the whole, that kind of argument appeals mostly to people who are already inclined to see Republicans as extremists, i.e. Democrats. That’s why it fell on deaf ears when they tried to portray Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as new versions of Goldwater.
On the other hand, it’s possible that 2016 will be different. There isn’t much precedent for the kind of derangement we’ve seen among Republican voters during the Obama years. Yes, there were some Republicans who thought Clinton was a drug lord who murdered his political enemies, and even some Democrats who thought Bush purposely allowed 9/11 to happen. But in modern times it’s hard to top a situation where as many as half of the opposition party’s voters think the president of the United States is literally a foreigner.
So there is one group of persuadable voters who could be turned off if Walker or any other candidate indulges the fantasies and prejudices of the GOP base: minorities. Let’s stipulate that African-Americans, the ones most sensitive to this kind of slight, are out of reach for Republicans anyway. But members of other minority groups, like Hispanics and Asian-Americans, understand what it’s like to not get the presumption of Americanness that is granted to whites. They know just what’s going on when the first non-white president of the United States has to literally show his papers to convince people he’s an actual American, and when his patriotism and religious beliefs are constantly questioned.
So when Scott Walker says he isn’t sure whether Barack Obama loves America, it’s those minority voters — the ones Republicans are so desperate to “reach out” to — that he may be alienating. But by the time the general election rolls around, the white swing voters will probably have forgotten all about it.