Opinion

Scott Walker, the gutless wonder of the 2016 presidential race

By firing a controversial staffer, the Wisconsin governor lost a lot of credibility

Sometimes the most inside-baseball political stories tell you something essential about a presidential candidate. That's what happened this week to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who apparently wants to win the Iowa caucuses so badly that he's willing to torch his staff and his reputation to do it.

The Walker campaign recently announced that it had hired Liz Mair, a highly regarded Republican consultant. Mair has also played pundit at times, and is generally more pro-gay rights and pro-immigration than the average Republican. But that's typical of Republican consultants in general. It is assumed that policy is set by the candidates themselves, not by the people advising them on their social media accounts.

However, Mair's hiring was subject to an unusual amount of scrutiny. Muckrakers on the right pointed out that Mair supported "amnesty" for immigrants who had entered the country illegally, or something like it. The Des Moines Register ran an article highlighting some sharp remarks Mair had made about Iowa's distorting influence on national politics, with its first-in-the-nation status forcing candidates to embrace Iowa's agricultural subsidies and a federal mandate that requires fuel-inefficient ethanol to be mixed with all gasoline. And finally, Jeff Kauffman, Iowa's GOP chairman, suggested to The New York Times that Walker should give Mair "her walking papers."

Mair was gone. Officially, she resigned.

Forcing Mair out was like amputating your finger to deal with a paper cut. Instead of having a problem with a few Iowans and a writer at Breitbart.com, Walker has now baffled his admirers across the right. Mair's resignation signaled that Walker's team either didn't do its homework before hiring Mair, or that it was too spineless to defend her. It is hard to believe the former, since Mair consulted for Walker before during his 2012 recall.

Walker's unwillingness to defend his own hire will give other consultants and policy experts jitters before joining the team. It totally undercuts his reputation as a tough-minded fighter who stands on principle. And it may contribute to an alternate interpretation of Walker as a 'fraidy cat. Earlier this month, Walker caved to Iowa ethanol interests by reversing his position on the federal mandate.

The problem, in other words, wasn't the tweets of a single staffer, but the way Iowa's parochial concerns act like kryptonite on Walker's convictions and reputation. He can certainly recover from this, but if Walker thinks his path to the nomination runs through Iowa, he needs to figure out how to win that state's caucuses without turning into Tom Vilsack before he arrives in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Walker's approach also contrasts badly with Jeb Bush's. Bush has been hiring policy brains and strategic brawn from across the right and center-right. He recently hired the social conservative legal activist Jordan Sekulow. Jordan is the son of Jay Sekulow, a pioneer in forming the modern right's commitment to religious liberty issues at home. The hire was not well-received in the media. It was described as a "lurch to the right." A number of stories bringing up Jordan Sekulow's support for anti-gay rights laws in Africa popped up across the media.

Did Bush panic and throw Sekulow under the bus? Nope. He assumes, correctly, that adults won't confuse the positions of one of his hires with his own. And as it happens, having people who disagree with you on staff is incredibly useful.

If you were a top expert, a policy-thinker, or a consultant, which candidate would you want to work for? The guy who tosses his people out on the say-so of an Iowa Republican whose name he had just learned, or Jeb Bush, who doesn't give a jus exclusivæ to his enemies?

How would Walker handle a tough Supreme Court nomination battle against a united Democratic Senate, if he folds instantly after some whinging from a right-wing muckraker? Until this week, Walker supporters could have pointed to his white-knuckle fight with Wisconsin's public-sector unions. Now his critics can point to the way he cowers before a few rotting corn stalks.

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