On a mild, overcast June 5 in Raleigh, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stepped up to the microphone in the garden of a private home. He was there to discuss what he had done in Wisconsin, and, implicitly, what he could do for the nation.
As important, he was there to give the crowd attending the Civitas-sponsored event an up-close look at who he really is. After all, politicians can say anything they want in a speech. Those of us on the right, however, are painfully aware of how often candidates shy away from conservative stands once they get in office. So we especially want to know: What kind of person is this who is asking for our trust, and our vote?
“We can make America great again,” Walker told the crowd in the garden. “We just need leadership.”
Though he has not declared his candidacy for the presidency, he is a leader in polls of possible Republican candidates in 2016. In person, how does he measure up?
Walker, 47, looks surprisingly youthful. (Although maybe that’s my age: I’m a few years younger than Hillary Clinton.) Also, he seems more upbeat and cheerful than he seems in media coverage.
That may be because most media images come from the times when 100,000 activists protested the reform movement he led in Wisconsin, and when he was fighting a recall effort. No doubt that would make anyone look serious.
In speaking to our Civitas event, however, he had good reason for looking more upbeat. He stood up to the protestors, continued to lead a reform drive, and ended up winning three elections – two regular elections and the recall – in four years.
“We took the power out of the hands of big government and put in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers,” he said. Underlining that: Wisconsin has long been a bastion of progressive politics. “If conservative, common sense reforms can work in a blue state like Wisconsin, then they can work anywhere,” he said.
He came into office with a state budget deficit of $3.6 billion; since then the state has had a surplus every year. Property taxes are lower; the unemployment rate has fallen to below the national average.
Reforms in other fields have brought other benefits, he said. “We’ve empowered local governments to work better.”
For example, Wisconsin instituted a slate of education reforms. Since then, Walker said, “Graduation rates are up, third-grade reading scores are up, ACT scores are second highest in the country.”
That is the underlying theme of his campaign, in essence. As he said here, “If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can do it the nation’s capital.”
At the same time, seeing him in person showed he’s a likeable guy who can explain what he’s done and what he wants to do in a way that could connect with voters. That’s essential in today’s politics.
That he has been able to face down bitter opposition surely stokes conservatives’ interest. Any review of recent campaigns shows that in 2016 any right-of-center candidate will have to withstand a withering barrage from the opposition, then, if victorious, push through real reforms. Walker has shown he’s done both things in Wisconsin.
That he could do the same in the White House is, of course, the big question. That’s why trying to figure out what kind of person he really is so essential.
He is the fifth possible candidate to appear at a Civitas event this year, and each has been revealing. At a Charlotte town hall in January, Mike Huckabee revealed a range of ideas that don’t often come up in the media portrayal of him.
At Civitas’ Conservative Leadership Conference in March, Rick Santorum showed he still is passionate about the rights of all people. Carly Fiorina proved she has the depth and conviction to match other national leaders. Ben Carson displayed the low-key confidence that can win over voters to conservative values and policies. Seeing them in person was invaluable for everyone at those events.
And of course there are plenty of other candidates who are apparently in the hunt. It’s a safe bet more will be coming through North Carolina for months to come. If you have a chance to see them in the flesh, try to take it. It’s a great way to find out more about those who want to lead us in the crucial years to come.