Dear Mike Gallagher,
Hi, I’m Dan. We’ve never met, but I’ll be writing about the 2016 campaign and foreign policy a lot here at The Post, so I wanted to reach out.
First of all, congratulations on joining Scott Walker’s team – that’s a big step up for you! Based on your bio, it looks very well-deserved. Plus, based on some completely unscientific polling, your candidate has been having a very good month indeed. He’s also been the object of some erroneous mainstream media hits, which is like catnip to those conservative activists you need to woo in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere. Sure, he’s stumbled a bit on the gotcha questions, but that’s life on the big stage. I’m sure he’ll get better.
Can we talk about foreign policy, though? Because, to be honest, I’m hearing he didn’t wow donors last month on this subject. And over this past weekend, his foreign policy answers at CPAC and the Club for Growth did not inspire a lot of confidence.
At CPAC he joked that because he had handled 100,000 protesters in Wisconsin, he could handle the threat posed by ISIS. I don’t think Walker was directly comparing union protesters to terrorists. Still, even die-hard conservatives thought that answer was weak, glib and “a genuine unforced error.”
Things didn’t improve at the Club for Growth speech. Here are the key portions:
“Candidly, I think foreign policy is something that’s not just about having a PhD or talking to PhDs. It’s about leadership,” [Walker] said. “I would contend the most significant foreign policy decision in my lifetime was made by a president who was previously a governor. A president who made a decision that wasn’t even about foreign policy. It was in August of 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.” . . .
Arguing that the mettle he has shown in Wisconsin demonstrates that he would be a strong leader, he pointed to Reagan’s showdown with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.
“PATCO was one of the few unions that actually endorsed Ronald Reagan when he ran for president. So it wasn’t political retribution,” said Walker. “It was because they were striking, and it was against the law to strike.”
“It sent a message around the world,” he continued. “It sent a message to our allies. . . . Equally, if not more importantly, it sent a powerful message to our adversaries — ironically, some of the same we have today, with different names, the Soviet Union and Iran — that we were not going to be messed with.” (emphasis added)
Here’s the thing: this foreign policy parable is kind of wrong. The most obvious way that it’s wrong is that it’s easy to think of other foreign policy decisions in Walker’s lifetime that were more significant: the United States opening to China, the peaceful end of the Cold War, support for the reunification of Germany, NAFTA, the nuclear accord with India, PEPFAR, and so forth. Really, it’s not hard.
The more subtle way that it’s wrong is that Walker’s causal claim is a weaksauce argument. Sure, Peggy Noonan says Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz told her something to this effect, but there are a few problems with this logic. Contra Walker’s claims, there are no Soviet documents backing up his assertion. Also, no matter what Noonan said, Shultz only mentioned the air traffic controllers twice in his more than 1,100-page memoirs. If this incident was really that important for the conduct of American foreign policy, I’m thinking that Shultz would have mentioned it more often. So maybe that episode isn’t as important as is claimed today.
Plus, there’s also, you know, actual early 1980s history. If that incident was really as powerful as your candidate says, you’d have expected both U.S. allies and adversaries to have begun to demonstrate greater comity toward the United States beginning in the fall of 1981. Except, of course, that didn’t happen. The Soviets continued to act in a belligerent manner until well into the Gorbachev era. The Reagan administration and its NATO allies, meanwhile, had serious disputes over the Soviet gas pipeline and the strong dollar. For a few years after Reagan clashed with PATCO, U.S. foreign relations took a turn for the worse, not for the better.
This parable is shorthand for Walker’s belief that credibility and resolve really matter in dealing with foreign adversaries. That’s a genuinely debatable proposition, but I’d also note that the last president to trumpet reality-creating confidence on the global stage does not have the best of foreign policy legacies.
Conservatives are noticing these kind of statements, and not in a good way. A few weeks ago the Weekly Standard’s John McCormick warned that, “Walker isn’t going to last very long if his main response to foreign policy questions is to point out that Ronald Reagan took on the air traffic controllers.”
Even Noonan, one of the biggest proponents of this parable, noted the following on Sunday:
Ronald Reagan himself would never suggest, on the way to the presidency, that all you need to understand foreign policy is a good gut and leadership abilities. You need knowledge, sophistication, grasp. He’d been studying foreign affairs all his adult life. He walked into the Oval Office with a policy: We win, the Soviets lose. A talent for leadership doesn’t tell you where to go, it helps you get there. Wisdom tells you where to go.
Look, it’s early, and you just started, and I get that your candidate needs to bone up on this topic. You’ve also been blessed with some other potential presidential hopefuls who keep saying more boneheaded things than Walker. But dissing foreign policy experience and education — which, by the way, includes you — and braying about “leadership” is not going to allay the fears of the experienced foreign policy hands that you’re going to need before Jeb Bush locks them all down.
This isn’t about whether Walker should profess a more dovish or hawkish foreign policy posture. This is whether he wants to sound like a smart hawk or a dumb hawk. It’s about whether he wants to improve on the truly dismal 2012 foreign policy performance of the GOP field.
Walker has no experience on foreign policy. That’s not necessarily a problem — Jeb Bush, another leading 2016 candidate, doesn’t either. But Bush has at least made an effort on foreign policy. His recent address on the subject contained several embarrassing gaffes, but his broad themes were basically acceptable to the GOP mainstream.
Tell the governor that he needs to redouble his efforts on foreign policy. He needs to acknowledge, at least to you, that he knows he doesn’t know enough right now about foreign policy.
Best of luck this year!