To my genuine surprise, no one seems to be wilting under the bright lights of the 2016 campaign trail more thoroughly than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who hasn't seemed to be able to put a foot right since his presidential campaign began in earnest. Whether he's allowing himself to get pushed around on staffing decisions, steering headlong into an avoidable hypocrisy, or enunciating policy positions without getting permission from his billionaire backers first, Walker's proved to be easy to intimidate and inept at communicating.
So perhaps it's no surprise that Walker's latest trick is to fall back on what New York Magazine's Jaime Fuller calls the "Secret Cheat Code That Allows Him To Avoid All Campaign Questions." Per Fuller:
ABC News asked Walker how he would respond to the massive influx of refugees from Syria if he were president today. He explained that the query was flawed. As he is obviously not president, Walker argued, there is no way that he would be able to answer that question. “I'm not president today and I can't be president today,” he said. "Everybody wants to talk about hypotheticals; there is no such thing as a hypothetical" -- a sentence that probably would have moved Socrates to set Walker's pants on fire himself.
This is the dodge that Walker's long been seeking, as he's found -- much to his dismay -- that running for president requires one to take questions from reporters about what your positions on issues are and how you'd act once you made it to the White House. You can basically see the Walker campaign as one long attempt to workshop the perfect, Zen-like utterance that not only confers on Walker the ability to avoid questions but subtly impugns the questioner for having the gall to inquire in the first place.
From the beginning, Walker has been working hard at innovating in the question-dodge space. Back in February, when Walker was asked if he believed in evolution -- a junior-high-level science topic -- Walker didn't offer up the "Hey, I'm not a scientist" line that so many other science-averse candidates proffer in that moment. Instead, he just said, "I'm going to punt on that ... That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or another."
"In some ways, this is an improvement for a politician," wrote Ars Technica's John Timmer, who continued, "But, much more realistically, Walker is punting not because he feels the question shouldn't be answered by politicians, but because he sees lots of political downsides to answering." And that's one thing that has evolved: Walker's ability to minimize the political downsides of his political opinions by keeping them under wraps.
It hasn't always worked out. When CNBC's John Harwood asked about Walker's position on birthright citizenship, Walker insisted he has no position on the matter, despite having clearly enunciated a position on the matter mere hours earlier. It would have been a pretty neat trick if no one had noticed that he'd done so, but unfortunately for Walker, people had.
Still, I guess it was worth a try? After all, now Walker has taken these lessons learned and made a tactical shift in his circumlocutions with reporters. Rather than take a position on a matter, only to have to later pretend to have not done so, Walker will now limit his position-taking by refraining from taking positions on anything that happened in the past, or that might happen in the future. That will leave every reporter with a very narrow range of questions they're allowed to ask, like, "You look handsome today. What is your secret?" This is probably all that Walker's frail heart can handle.
The Wisconsin governor has already begun field-testing his new technique. Earlier this week, he got a second chance to interview with Harwood, and during that time, Walker went on a rather lengthy disquisition about former President Ronald Reagan, his Reagany goodness and Walker's own aspirations to Reagan-ness. Things very nearly hit a snag when Harwoord brought up one of Reagan's own policy positions -- one that Walker could not afford to share. But Walker came up with a genius excuse to avoid the issue entirely:
Harwood: Ronald Reagan, as you know, strongly opposed the passage of Medicare, said it was an infringement of liberty, socialized medicine. Was he right about that?
Walker: Well, we're not going to take Medicare away. He gave that speech, as I remember, three years before I was born. So I can't judge what he meant at the time.
As Jonathan Chait points out, "It is actually very easy to judge what Reagan was saying about Medicare. He was calling it a socialist scheme that would lead to doctors being told where they could live, and would destroy freedom in America." But never mind that: If you go back and check out the Harwood interview, you'll see Walker shift seamlessly from confidently holding court on decisions Reagan made when Walker was a whelp to pretending to not be able to fathom Reagan's thinking.
Nifty trick. Niftier still is going from "Everybody wants to talk about hypotheticals; there is no such thing as a hypothetical" to "I'm talking about what I would do as president, that'll be a year and a half from now" in the same interview. By claiming exemption from doing the two things every presidential candidate has to do -- enunciate the origins of their political thought and describe the steps they'd take in governing the country -- Walker may have hit on a media technique that will keep his timorous candidacy alive.
And, hey: If reporters respond to these dodges in the same pigeon-hearted fashion, Walker could yet go far.
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