At the outset of the 2016 election season, the conventional wisdom on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was that he was in a fairly unique position among the Republican Party’s presidential contenders. He was a favorite of both major donors and grassroots activists. His appeal was broad enough that one could easily imagine a coalition of tea partiers, evangelicals and mainstream conservatives. Best of all, Walker was a survivor: The Democrats and the unions had come at the king, and they'd missed. Repeatedly and dramatically. Which is, like, the one thing you're not supposed to do.
In other words, there was a time not so long ago when a lot of folks thought the nomination was Walker’s to lose. Lately, however, the question has become whether Walker is about to go and do just that.
One of the latest moments of uncertainty came on Friday, when Walker, in conversation with CNBC’s John Harwood, declined to offer an opinion about whether children of undocumented immigrants (or, if you’re Jeb Bush, “anchor babies”) should get American citizenship -- as is currently their right under the law.
"I'm not taking a position on it one way or the other," he told Harwood. "I'm saying that until you secure the border and enforce the laws, any discussion about anything else is really looking past the very things we have to do."
All well and good... unless you happened to be paying attention on Monday, when the issue of birthright citizenship came up in an interview with MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, and Walker said explicitly that the right should be stripped from children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants.
Here's what Walker told MSNBC's Kasie Hunt on Monday:
Hunt: Do you think that birthright citizenship should be ended?
Walker: Like I said, [Sen.] Harry Reid said it's not right for this country. I think that's something we should -- yeah, absolutely, going forward --
Hunt: We should end birthright citizenship?
Walker: Yeah. To me, it’s about enforcing the laws in this country. And I’ve been very clear, I think you enforce the laws, and I think it’s important to send a message that we’re going to enforce the laws, no matter how people come here, we need to uphold the law in this country.
(That reference to Reid, a Nevada Democrat and currently the Senate minority leader, is one that conservatives like to pull out frequently, even though Reid made the statement in 1993 and has since said it was a mistake.)
So what happened between Monday and Friday to make Walker -- pardon the expression -- walk back? The evidence suggests that his troubles arise from having to please the GOP’s nativist primary base while also keeping his big institutional donors happy. According to a report by The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson and Sean Sullivan, the person responsible for Walker’s backtrack may have been Stanley Hubbard, "a conservative billionaire who oversees a Minnesota broadcasting company,” who's “donated to Walker’s campaign” and who “had lunch on Tuesday with Walker and other campaign supporters.” Per the Post:
Hubbard strongly opposes one immigration measure pushed by [Donald] Trump this week: a call to stop giving citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who are born in the United States. Walker said in an interview Monday that he would support ending birthright citizenship, then said other reforms might make that unnecessary.
Hubbard said that he “might really quickly change my allegiance” if Walker pushed for such a repeal, and that he “did not get a real straight answer” from the candidate at his Tuesday lunch. But Hubbard, who came away ready [to] write more checks to help Walker, added: “I got the feeling that he is not at all anxious to talk about taking away those rights.”
It was just a day earlier that Walker had stood on the famous Iowa State Fair soapbox, sparring with a protester: “I’m not intimidated by you, sir, or anyone else out there.” Well, maybe not. But that doesn't mean that nothing intimidates Walker -- a fact that's becoming more and more clear the longer he spends on the national stage.
“This is becoming a big problem for him,” tweeted Republican communications strategist Liz Mair on Tuesday. “Says one thing publicly, then indicates the opposite privately. Needs to quit it.” There's an O. Henryish aspect to this, since Walker at one point might have privately benefited from Mair’s advice: She was set to work with the Walker campaign back in March, only to quit after the governor succumbed to pressure from the digital peanut gallery that Mair be fired for making “frank Twitter criticism of Iowa’s early role in the presidential nomination process.” (What she actually said was, "The sooner we remove Iowa's frontrunning status, the better off American politics and policy will be.")
In Friday’s interview with Harwood, Walker was also forced to discuss Donald Trump, the real estate mogul whose ersatz presidential campaign currently leads the GOP’s primary polls. Walker seemed miffed that Harwood suggested his immigration statements -- which include restricting legal immigration -- had anything to do with Trump. His proposals came before Trump's, Walker said. True enough. In fact, you can argue that some of Walker’s previously enunciated immigration positions, such as his criticism in April of legal immigration itself, give Trump a run for his money in terms of sheer radical audacity.
But as The Washington Post notes, Trump's not the only one throwing Walker off his game. Rather, “his candidacy has become overshadowed by non-politicians such as Trump, [Ben] Carson and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who have connected with voters who are angry at those in office.” And as The Capital Times’ Todd D. Milewski points out, after years of enjoying steady and consistent public favor, Walker has lately (and surprisingly!) become just another one of those officeholders with whom voters are angry:
Obviously, it would be wholly premature at this point to count Walker out of the running. The election is over 14 months away, and he has plenty of time to right the ship. He remains competitive in the Iowa caucus polls, and he's posting numbers good enough to ensure that he won’t slip down a tier into any future “undercard debates.”
And as of late Friday afternoon, Walker’s team was already working to clean up the birthright citizenship mess. In a statement, the Walker campaign’s national press secretary, AshLee Strong, said: “Despite the best efforts to mischaracterize Governor Walker’s position, he has clearly and consistently stated that we need to enforce the laws on the books, keep people from coming here illegally, and enforce e-verify to stop the jobs magnet before we address the issue of birthright citizenship. By addressing the root problems -- in the right order -- we will end this collateral issue that only exists because we have a border that is not secure and a broken system.”
Of course, as CNN reports, the hits just keep coming:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stumbled through a question Friday about whether he would meet with representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement.
When asked whether he'd be willing to meet with activists, Walker dismissed the possibility by saying, "Who knows who that is?"
"I meet with voters. Who knows who that is," Walker said, apparently referring to Black Lives Matter activists.
When pressed on the matter, Walker said he would "talk to American voters."
"It's the same way as saying we meet with the tea party. Who is the tea party? There's hundreds of thousands of people," he said.
Ah, well. Practice makes perfect.