Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean went on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" late last week and called Walker "unknowledgeable" because he didn't graduate from college. "I worry about people being president of the United States not knowing much about the world and not knowing much about science," Dean added. "I worry about that."
Then on Friday, Media Matters for America's Eric Boehlert tweeted this out:
Boehlert later retracted that tweet.
This seems to me to be a MAJOR strategic mistake that could badly backfire on Democrats if Walker happened to become the Republican nominee in 2016. Here's why:
1. The idea that smart/able = college graduate reeks of elitism. Lots -- and LOTS -- of very successful people have never graduated from college. (There is a Web site called the College Dropouts Hall of Fame.) And, no one likes the guy (or gal) who asks what you got on your SAT scores or what college you went to when you meet them. Elitism is rarely an appealing trait in a political party. Democrats would do well to remember that.
2. A majority of people in this country don't have college degrees. According to Census numbers from 2009-2013, less than three in 10 Americans (28.8 percent) over the age of 25 have a bachelor's degree or higher. That means that there are tons of people who have a similar educational background to Walker, people who almost certainly don't (or wouldn't) appreciate a dismissal of their intelligence because of their lack of a college degree. Remember, too, that there's a growing belief in conservative circles that higher education has become a liberal's paradise -- so not having a college degree may well help Walker with that crowd. "He'll lay to rest the absurd belief that you're a nobody if you don't have a college degree," wrote conservative Glenn Reynolds of Walker in a USA Today op-ed. "And he might even cut into the surprisingly recent takeover of our institutions by an educated mandarin class, something that just might save the country."
How to talk (or if to talk) about Walker's lack of a college degree is going to be a hot topic in the coming weeks as the Wisconsin governor's just-launched attempt to pare back funding for the University of Wisconsin system is sure to be a massive political fight in the state with big 2016 ramifications. Conflating Walker's lack of a college degree with his effort to reduce funding to the state's university system seems to me like a political loser. Yes, it is true that Walker didn't graduate from college. And, yes, it is also true that he is pushing to cut some funding for the University of Wisconsin system. But simply because both statements are true doesn't mean they grow out of one another.
Democrats would be on far safer ground framing Walker's latest move on higher ed as an example of his putting his own presidential aspirations ahead of what's good for Wisconsin. (To their credit, many in-state Democrats are doing just that.) That's an argument that can be made without even mentioning Walker's level of academic achievement and one, it seems to me, that is more likely to succeed as well.
Viewed broadly, the fact that Walker didn't finish college does make him unique among modern presidents and those who want to be president. (Truman was the last president who didn't finish college.) But it's hard to imagine a lack of a degree as a disqualifying trait in the eyes of most Americans -- even if Howard Dean doesn't agree.