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Arnold Steinberg

Did Walker Walk the Walk?

Scott Walker is gone.

Walker’s presidential campaign is out of money, though his super PAC (not the official campaign) has raised more than $26 million. Major donors will properly demand refunds of the mostly unspent money. That’s what donors to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s $17 million super PAC ($12 million on hand) did, when Perry ended his presidential campaign ten days ago.

Walker and Perry each “suspended” the formal campaign, which is distinct from their super PACs. Suspension means each candidate can still get Federal matching funds to pay campaign debts. Walker now can use your tax dollars to fully pay his prescient campaign strategists. This is yet another aspect of wonderful campaign reform, the fiction that tax dollars purify the process.

Given the seductive allure of those Federal dollars, and the super PAC resources available for advertising, Walker and Perry have shown admirable integrity. Soon other candidates may also, as Mitt Romney would say, self-deport. Donald Trump once deprecated Walker and Perry as “losers”; after withdrawal, he now says each man is a “nice guy,” it’s sort of like Trump saying a woman has a “good personality.”

Both Perry and Walker, honorable and gracious, left the race with class. Still, I don’t expect either man to be on the ticket.

The Washington Post blames Walker’s abrupt exit on fundraising problems and on Donald Trump. This simplistic analysis ignores that Walker’s super PAC still could have deployed $15 million or more in television advertising. But Walker apparently recognizes that paid media can complement, but not supplant, viability. (Memo to Jeb: There is a lesson here.) That’s because voters know that political ads are…ads. And even more than in past elections, Republican voters are watching debates to make up their mind. The consultant class doesn’t get 15 percent commission on debate coaching, thus an elusive commodity.

The money problems in Walker’s official campaign are a symptom, not the cause, of his collapse. Trump over the summer changed the political landscape, but that affected not just Walker and Perry but the entire field. And the genesis of Walker’s decline predated Trump’s entrance into the race.

I had long predicted that Walker’s campaign would fail. That’s because his initial high polling numbers in Iowa had little depth, and they masked a flawed candidacy that was hardly vetted. Some major donors were properly impressed with what Walker accomplished in Wisconsin. Weary of what they viewed as polemicist community organizer Obama’s failure to manage, the super-wealthy icons preferred a governor, rather than senator, to be the Republican presidential nominee. But they – and their advisers – failed in their due diligence or in enabling Walker, adrift on auto-pilot, to grow in stature.

It turns out that Scott Walker who called himself “aggressively normal” was aggressively dull. Preposterously, Donald Trump became the New Normal, the boastful billionaire who stole the protest show. But Trump did not cause Walker’s disintegration. Scott Walker found himself competing for an evangelical vote with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee; indeed all three had a populist theme. Walker was a sincere man, the ordinary guy, paycheck-to-paycheck, with a negative net worth, credit card debt at 27 percent interest (clearly Walker never read The Art of the Deal), and also responsible for student loans for his children; he shopped at Kohl’s and he campaigned initially without a tie. But no one cared about all this.

And Walker’s debate performance compressed not only his national numbers, but concomitantly the polls in evangelical Iowa.

Don’t blame Walker’s collapse on Donald Trump. The national press reported pre-Trump that Walker was the first choice of the Kochs, who really are brilliant and shrewd, so why not buy Walker stock? But betting on Walker was puzzling, because problems were apparent. Walker had dropped out of college before finishing his senior year, for the implausible reason of accepting a minor Red Cross job. This hardly demonstrated vision. And to disabuse possible skeptics down the road, Walker would have to overwhelm with intellect; he never did. Although his presidential candidacy was likely, he never prepared himself on foreign policy. My friends supporting him said he would improve “after being briefed.” I wondered why someone considering a presidential run would delay briefings until after he announced. He knew for a year or more he probably would run.

His early comparison of the union goons who threatened him and his family in Wisconsin to ISIS indicated he was either detached from reality or politically unintuitive. Soon, he seemed ready to put “boots on the ground” anywhere, Wisconsin, Iraq, Syria. His early interviews were redundant sound bites: he was always for “big bold ideas” and had won “three elections in four years in a blue state.” At times, this robotic mantra was like he was auditioning before a political action committee. But he was repeatedly on network television: he appeared detached from the interviewer. In a room, in person, he could connect; no one helped transform him into a media presence.

He nicely explained his flip-flop on immigration by saying he had changed his opinion. The only problem is, he kept changing. And months later, on a single day, he went back and forth on anchor babies. And ten days ago, just before the second debate, the politically clueless major donors seemed to convince Walker to return to his union-busting theme, not exactly a hot issue. That’s when he called for an end to collective bargaining for federal workers, a national right-to-work law, and elimination of the National Labor Relations Board. This might be good stuff for a CPAC afternoon workshop on the power of unions, but hardly on the national radar.

Walker’s legacy is that he restored sovereignty to Wisconsin government. Now the unions do not control it. But while his tenacity in Wisconsin attracted positive insider reviews, that record seemed irrelevant to the national electorate. And Walker seemed unable to punch it up or turn up the volume. He seemed matter of fact, devoid of passion. All of this has nothing to do with Donald Trump.

The Walker high command put its self-promotion above its fiduciary responsibility. Months ago Walker’s top aides were patronizing, quoted on the record on the need to convince voters that Walker was intelligent. And just a few days ago his foreign policy adviser was interviewed, quite unconvincingly, on electoral politics as he explained why Walker was in the race to stay.

In the first debate Walker said he would prohibit abortions without an exemption for the life of the mother. While he has his rationale – that the circumstance would be rare, and that the exemption might be abused, his position could be dispositive in a general election. I said he was unelectable. More generally, his performance was anemic. At times he seemed more like a spectator than a participant. After the second debate, his aides complained he was given insufficient time. But if he can take on union thugs, surely he can take on a debate moderator and speak up as even his fellow governor John Kasich did.

If we cannot fault Walker for his dismal performances in the two debates, and for his perennially raised eyebrows in each interview, a “deer in the headlights” persona which itself raised eyebrows, then we must ask why Walker’s team was AWOL. How else can we explain, for example, his five o’clock shadow? Didn’t we learn from Richard Nixon in 1960, more than a half century ago, that some candidates must shave twice a day?

Like many candidates who withdraw or lose, Walker had his finest hour in his exit speech. That’s when he faulted the overall presidential campaign for degenerating into personal attacks. And he called on others to suspend their campaign for conservative unity. Scott Walker is a decent man of character who truly has pursued public service. He set Wisconsin on the right course. But he was not ready for the national scene.