Joe Walsh sees an opportunity

Talking to the Republican challenger about why he's running — and why he'd prefer an Elizabeth Warren presidency to Trump

Joe Walsh.
(Image credit: Illustrated | via REUTERS, rubinat/iStock)

If you've spent most of your summer away from cable news and the pages of our national newspapers, you might not realize that Donald Trump is not the only Republican running for president. Bill Weld, the moderate former governor of Massachusetts who served as the number-two man on the 2016 Libertarian presidential ticket, announced his candidacy back in February. On Monday, Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina congressman and governor of "Appalachian trail" fame, officially threw his hat into the ring.

Then there is Joe Walsh, the former House Republican and talk radio host who officially began his bid for the Republican presidential nomination at the end of August. If the first thing you think of when you hear that name is the guy who did "Rocky Mountain Way," you're not alone. (As it happens, the Eagles guitar legend also ran for president once, in 1980, when he was only 33; he also sought the vice presidency in 1992 as the running mate of the late Rev. Goat Carson. Nor is this the only thing the two have in common apart from their names: Like the narrator of the rock luminary's 1978 hit "Life's Been Good," the one-term Illinois Republican congressman also lost his driver's license at one point.)

"Don't ever run for president," Walsh told me in a recent interview. "It's a pain in the butt."

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Walsh was born in North Barrington, Illinois, in 1961. One of eight siblings in an Irish Catholic household, Walsh was a varsity athlete and senior class president. After attending Grinnell College, he graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in English in 1985. He then pursued an acting career in New York and Los Angeles for several years before earning a master's degree at the University of Chicago. After that he held a number of jobs — social worker, teacher, fundraiser, financial analyst.

His first foray into politics came in 1996, when he ran as a liberal Republican in Illinois' ninth congressional district against the 87-year-old Democratic Rep. Sidney Yates. Walsh proudly declared himself in favor of both abortion and gun control. "I think I'm the kind of Republican who can win because I'm open and tolerant," he told the Chicago Tribune at the time. "I'm not some right-wing conservative." Walsh's campaign was perhaps most memorable for a series of bizarre publicity stunts, which included riding a bicycle to meet would-be constituents and offering a $1,000 reward to the first person who spotted Yates in the district. The reward was collected by the doorman at Yates's apartment building, and Walsh lost the race by a 26-point margin.

Two years later, he ran against another Democratic incumbent, Jeffrey Schoenberg, for a seat in the state legislature. In his second political campaign, Walsh remained socially liberal while focusing primarily on education. He drove a school bus around the district. He was defeated again, this time by 25 points.

In 2010, at the height of the Tea Party movement, Walsh tried once more, this time running as a conservative in Illinois' fifth congressional district, generally considered among the most GOP-friendly in the state. He eventually won a six-person primary contest with 34 percent of the vote and went on to face the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Melissa Bean, whom The New York Times gave an 88-percent chance of being re-elected. Despite receiving no support from the national or state Republican parties, Walsh defeated Bean by 291 votes. (The Green Party's candidate received more than 6,000.)

The very next year, the Democrat-controlled state legislature redrew Illinois' congressional map, moving Walsh's home into the 14th district, which was already represented by the Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren. Walsh sued the state, alleging racial discrimination against Hispanic voters, and briefly considered running against Hultgren. This challenge initially received the support of various conservative groups, including the Club for Growth, which retracted its endorsement when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Walsh was himself being sued by his ex-wife for unpaid child support.

In 2012, Walsh ended up running for a seat in Illinois' eighth district, where he faced Tammy Duckworth, now the state's junior U.S. senator. Duckworth, who had served as an assistant secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs, ran a campaign that highlighted her military service, something with which Walsh took issue at the time: "My God, that's all she talks about. Our true heroes, the men and women who served us, it's the last thing in the world they talk about." Despite skipping the Republican National Convention, Walsh received millions of dollars in support from various right-wing political action committees. Duckworth beat Walsh 55 to 45, despite being vastly outspent.

During his brief tenure in the House, Walsh (whose campaign staffers still refer to him as "congressman") was a frequent critic of the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration's spending, particularly on cable news. He voted against raising the federal debt ceiling and proposed a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. constitution. Walsh was rarely a stranger to controversy. In an op-ed piece for the Daily Caller in 2011, Walsh complained that "most American Jews are liberal"; the next day, in an interview with Slate, he attributed President Obama's political success to "white guilt" and the fact that he was "a black man who was articulate."

After leaving office in 2013, Walsh began a new career as a right-wing talk-radio host. The Joe Walsh Show began at a local Chicago station and spread to several other major markets before becoming syndicated in 2017. His freewheeling style and inflammatory rhetoric lent themselves well to the shockjock format and to social media. In July 2016, after five police officers were shot in Dallas, Texas, he tweeted: "This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out Black Lives Matter punks. Real America is coming after you." A few months later, in October, he wrote on the same platform: "On November 8th, I'm voting for Trump. On November 9th, if Trump loses, I'm grabbing my musket. You in?" He also promised to run for president himself in 2020 if Hillary Clinton were elected.

Clinton lost, but three years later, Walsh's radio program has been canceled and he is running for the White House anyway. Why the about-face on Donald Trump? "I think he's utterly unfit, unfit to be president," Walsh told me. "That's not an easy thing to say."

Walsh insists that most Republicans privately agree with his assessment. He also admits that he thinks his own rhetoric and that of the Tea Party movement of which he still considers himself a member "got to be hateful and ugly at times over the course of the last eight years." But he continues to repeat his own Tea Party-era talking points, calling the GOP establishment "weak and feckless" and "clueless about where their base really was." He says that Trump co-opted the movement.

Walsh claims that his decision to challenge Trump was motivated primarily by his negative assessment of Trump's character rather than because of policy disagreements. "I don't believe you challenge a sitting president just because you've got a problem with where he is on the debt," he says, singling out what seems to be among the only substantive areas in which he and Trump disagree. Instead, when asked about his opposition to his party's leader, he refers to the special counsel investigation and to Trump's press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last year, which he calls "the greatest act of disloyalty I've ever seen in American president." He dismisses the administration's increased troop presence in Poland, arms sales to Ukraine, bombing of Russian client Bashar al-Assad, increased sanctions, expulsion of Russian diplomats in coordination with NATO, and withdrawal from the Reagan-era START treaty — arguably the greatest escalation of tensions with Russia since the Kennedy administration — as "a few bones" thrown to critics.

Walsh sees deficit spending as the most serious problem faced by the United States. What would he do to restore America to what he considers fiscal sanity? According to Walsh, the problem is not defense spending or the 2017 Republican tax cuts, which he says he would not be inclined to repeal, but Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the three most widely supported federal programs. "If you're really honest about the debt, the looming debt crisis that we have right now, it's all about the entitlements," he says. "It's what we knew when I went to Congress eight years ago," adding that Americans need someone who is "willing to have a big-boy conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, because that's where the bulk of the spending is."

Walsh takes a surprisingly pragmatic view about the question of who should ultimately end up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2021. He is even willing to admit that, as a binary question, he would rather see Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren end up there. "I would rather be in a position where I am fighting Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden's bad ideas with everything I've got — their bad big-government socialist ideas — than another four years of an utterly dishonest guy who, if he's left to his own devices, and he doesn't have to run again, would be an absolute tyrant or a dictator. I don't want that."

He is realistic, too, about his own chances in 2020: "I can't lie," he says. "If you're in Vegas right now, are you gonna put ten grand down on Joe Walsh? No, but I think there's an opportunity here."

There certainly is. It would not be the first one Walsh has ever seized.

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