Sixteen years ago, George W. Bush presented to America his vision of “compassionate conservatism,” and in response he received an absolute torrent of glowing articles in the media calling him a “different kind of Republican” — conservative, to be sure, but not so mean about it.
Well those days are long past. In the 2016 GOP primaries, it’s compassionless conservatism that’s in fashion.
Or at least that’s what Scott Walker seems to think, because among other things, he is hell-bent on making sure that anyone who gets food stamps in Wisconsin has to endure the humiliation of submitting to a drug test. First the Wisconsin legislature sent him a bill providing that the state could test food stamp recipients if it had a reasonable suspicion they were on drugs; he used his line-item veto to strike the words “reasonable suspicion,” so the state could test any (or all) recipients it wanted. And now, because federal law doesn’t actually allow drug testing for food stamp recipients, Walker is suing the federal government on the grounds that food stamps are “welfare,” and welfare recipients can be tested.
This is why Scott Walker is never going to be president of the United States.
First, some context. The drug testing programs for welfare recipients are usually justified by saying they’ll save money by rooting out all the junkies on the dole, but in practice they’ve been almost comically ineffective. In state after state, testing programs have found that welfare recipients use drugs at lower rates than the general population, finding only a tiny number of welfare recipients who test positive.
But this hasn’t discouraged politicians like Walker, any more than the abysmal failure of abstinence-only sex education discourages them from continuing to advocate it. The test is the point, not the result. Walker isn’t trying to solve a practical problem here. He wants to test food stamp recipients as a way of expressing moral condemnation. You can get this benefit, he’s saying, but we want to give you a little humiliation so you know that because you sought the government’s help, we think you’re a rotten person.
To be clear, there is no inherent connection between drug use and food stamps. There’s a logical reason to drug test people who have other’s lives in their hands, like airline pilots. You can make a case that employers should force ordinary employees to test for drugs, since workers who are high on the job would be less productive (though whether that actually works is a matter of some dispute). But what exactly is the rationale behind forcing people on food stamps to pee into a cup? It seems to be that we don’t want to give government benefits to someone who is so morally compromised as to smoke a joint. But you’ll notice that neither Walker nor any other Republican is proposing to drug test, say, people who use the mortgage interest deduction and thereby have the taxpayers subsidize their housing.
What does this have to do with Walker’s chances of winning a general election? What George W. Bush understood is that the Republican Party is generally considered to be somewhat, well, mean. It’s not welcoming, and it spends a lot of energy looking for people on whom it can pour its contempt. You can argue that this is an inaccurate representation of the party’s true nature, but it is nevertheless what many, if not most, voters believe.
So when Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” and did things like objecting to a Republican plan in Congress by saying, “I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor,” he wasn’t actually trying to get the votes of poor people and the minorities with whom he posed for innumerable pictures. He was sending a message to moderate voters, one that said: See, I’m different. I’m a nice guy. The fact that there was almost no substance to “compassionate conservatism” didn’t really matter in the context of the campaign. It was about his attitude.
And Scott Walker’s attitude is nothing like George W. Bush’s. He practically oozes malice, for anyone and everyone who might oppose him, or just be the wrong kind of person.
Proposing to force people who have fallen on hard times to submit to useless drug tests has an obvious appeal for a certain portion of the Republican base: it shows that you’re tough, and that you have contempt for poor people. But I doubt that Walker is too worried about how moderate general election voters might view something like that. As Ed Kilgore has noted, Walker’s theory of the general election is a decades-old conservative idea that if you motivate Republicans enough with a pure right-wing message, there will be so many hidden conservatives coming out of the woodwork that you won’t need moderates to win.
This theory persists because of its obvious appeal to hard-core conservatives. It says that they’re right about everything, and compromise is not only unnecessary but counterproductive. So the path to victory is to become even more conservative and even more uncompromising.
The trouble is that this theory has no evidence to support it. Its adherents, of whom Scott Walker is now the most prominent, believe that the reason Mitt Romney and John McCain lost is that they didn’t move far enough to the right (or that they were the wrong nominees in the first place). And they learned nothing from the one Republican in the last two decades who actually won the White House.