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April 30th, 2017

Insight

Scott Walker and a midwinter breakout

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published Jan.30, 2015

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks

Scott Walker is the new flavor of the week, the new dish on the Republican menu. He brought crowds to their feet in Iowa over the week end and placed first in an important regional poll to identify favorites for 2016.

For someone derided by the smart guys as dull and unexciting, the governor of Wisconsin is suddenly the flash and splash of midwinter. Such flash and splash, synthetic by definition, is usually the work of pundits dulled by the lethargy of January, the most useless of the months, eager to find something "new and entirely different."

But January ennui (pundits suffering lassitude of their own always often throw in something French in the third paragraph) sometimes uncovers the real thing, and Mr. Walker looks like authentic. Voters, both Republican and Democrat, seem to be bored with the pale and stale, the old and not so bold. Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and the gang, worthies all, are from a movie sent from Netflix. Hillary Clinton, the freshest face the Democrats can find, only reminds everyone of scandals, some more sordid than others, from the previous century.

The latest Iowa Poll, taken for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg News, shows Mr. Walker leading the Republican pack, with 14 percent. That might not seem an exciting number, but it was more than anyone else got, and it's up from 4 percent in October.

More to the point, he got his bounce after a speech to the Iowa Freedom Summit of 1,200 important social conservatives meeting in Des Moines. The governor fed them the red meat in an account of his dueling with organized labor in the recall election that he survived with ease, enacting tax cuts, pushing abortion restrictions and telling of threats to his family during the recall campaign. No one dozed off and he won a thundering standing ovation.

The disappointment in the Iowa Poll was the showing of Jeb Bush, who so far hasn't translated his fundraising, East Coast, establishment credentials into grassroots support in the Republican heartland. His 8 percent in the Iowa Poll was not only barely half of the Walker tally, but he trailed Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee for fourth place. He rivals Hillary as the butt of dynasty jokes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat whose speechwriters are not particularly famous for their wit and humor, gave her this one that rocked the Alfalfa dinner Saturday night in New York: "Jeb Bush looks like he's running for president. So now we know what the Bush family means by 'no child left behind.'"

The bunching up of the old guys gives Scott Walker, 47, the opening he needs for an early breakout, if he can exploit it. "A majority [in Iowa] think he's got the right balance between 'conservative' and 'moderate,'" says Ann Selzer, whose firm conducted the Iowa Poll. "Caucus-goers deciding on the basis of a candidate's values put him in second place, and he's in first place with those who say 'electability' is more important."

Celebrity is fleeting — nothing recedes like success — and Mr. Walker will need more than the fleeting memory of his successful defeat of the public unions and their recall attempt in Wisconsin. But he's beginning to put to rest his reputation for being a speaker with zzzzzs and no pizzazz, no ability to bring an audience to its feet with a fiery articulation of the values that animate conservatives. He's the son of a Baptist preacher and his performance in Iowa demonstrates that he inherited certain platform gifts.

Up next, say certain friendly if not necessarily partisan critics, is to obtain a little experience in the wider world beyond the heartland, perhaps with a trip to London and Paris and a conversation with David Cameron. What everyone knows about his thinking about foreign policy, often a snoozer in the heartland, is that his thinking reflects traditional Midwestern skepticism of the enthusiasms that light East Coast establishment fire. He suggests to interviewers that he wouldn't seek adventures abroad but he doesn't like to see America pushed around.

"I'm not necessarily encouraging that we draw red lines all over the place," he told Phillip Klein of the Washington Examiner last year, "[but] you shouldn't point a gun at somebody if you're not prepared to shoot."

He has never served in Congress, which may be a good talking point, and his experience as a governor, with the scars to prove it, is what voters ought to be looking for after the gilded incompetence of the Obama years. He's clearly one to watch.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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