Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leaves after a meeting with Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne at No 11 Downing Street, the Chancellor's official residence, in London, England, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Walker is leading a coalition of Wisconsin government and business officials on a trade mission that runs until Friday. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland) (Tim Ireland/AP)
Opinion writer

If I were a Republican, I think I might have supported Scott Walker for president. The man has a nice smile, nearly flunked French in college (so did I) and, most important, has fought for what he believes. What he believes, I must emphasize, is not what I believe, but I nevertheless could respect his tenacity and adherence to principle. Until last week.

It was last week that Walker made a trip to Britain. It was one of those so-called trade missions in which he emphasized the importance of Wisconsin exports, cheese and stuff. Apparently, simply being photographed with Big Ben in the background was supposed to enhance his foreign policy credentials, which, as far as I can tell, are nonexistent. He is virtually a different man.

But it was in London that a Brit, somehow overlooking the significance of cheese, asked the governor whether he believes in evolution. This is precisely no different than asking whether one believes in the theory of gravity or general relativity, but Walker would not answer. He said he had come to London to deal not with philosophical matters but, as cannot be emphasized enough, cheese. Good day, gentlemen!

My faux conservative heart sank. My pretend hero is either an ignoramus or a coward. It is simply not possible to contest evolution, since it is the basis of all the biological sciences. The issue is closed, not debatable, and while I am obliged to say something nice about those who prefer the biblical story of creation, I have to point out that countless people somehow manage a practical synthesis and believe in both — evolution and religion. It can be done.

Walker is a religious fellow, so it is possible he rejects evolution. If he does, that would be worrisome. It shows a mind-set, a predisposition to ignore evidence. This could enlist him in the army of don’t-worriers who deny the Earth is on a slow boil. As for evolution, he might be one of those people who insist that it’s a mere theory, purposely misrepresenting the word to mean something like a wild guess. Nay! Evolution is not a stab in the dark.

Walker’s punt showed me either that he does not have the courage of his convictions or that he has troubling convictions. In a thrilling coincidence, he was the second Republican governor this month to stumble in London. The once-courageous Chris Christie had also visited the British capital on yet another trade mission — New Jersey exports tomatoes and attitude — when he was asked about whether kids should be required to get the measles vaccine.

My God, what a tough question! The governor who chased people off the beach before Superstorm Sandy and whose aides put a full nelson on the George Washington Bridge said the choice should be left to the parents. Why? On account of their medical/scientific knowledge? On account of something they had once seen on “Oprah” or “Larry King Live” where Jenny McCarthy inveighed against vaccines? No. The answer was clear: pander. The self-styled Pander Slayer was pandering to his supposed base in yonder Iowa.

In the end, both men tweeted and grunted emendations and equivocations. But it was Walker who suffered the most, because it was Walker who had done so much more. He had faced down his state’s public-service unions — not just some patsy on the beach. He had survived a recall attempt, then won reelection, opposed a sensible mass transit plan, loathed taxes, big government and the morning-after pill, and as a state legislator he had the guts to fight the appointment of a Wiccan, the Rev. Jamyi Witch, as a prison chaplain. In short, he personifies the very heart of GOP medievalism — a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy until he would not answer a simple question about what used to be called Darwinism.

This suddenly made him so much like other politicians when, for a while, he had actually seemed different. The others talked a good game — they would do this and they would do that — but Walker had actually done it: slain the dragon of public-sector unions in Wisconsin, the home of American progressivism (Robert La Follette and such). Walker upended the state, revealing its McCarthyite underbelly. Tail-Gunner Joe was from Grand Chute.

Maybe Walker had not noticed: Jeb Bush is sticking to his guns on immigration and the Common Core. Principle is inexplicably back in vogue, forthrightness, too. Bush is making Walker seem foolish by comparison. The GOP was, well, evolving. The next time Walker is asked about evolution, he should just turn to the camera, smile and answer the damn question.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.