Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the hottest commodity of the likely Republican presidential field, has a talent for grabbing headlines.
On Thursday, in remarks to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Governor Walker suggested that his experience battling public-sector unions in Wisconsin prepared him to fight Islamic State terrorists.
“If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” Walker said in response to a question about his foreign policy experience.
Democrats reacted swiftly.
“If Scott Walker thinks that it's appropriate to compare working people speaking up for their rights to brutal terrorists, then he is even less qualified to be president than I thought,” wrote Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, moments after Walker spoke.
Was Walker’s comment a gaffe or smart politics? Perhaps both. The ballroom full of conservative activists loved his fiery speech, interrupting him at one point with chants of “run, Scott, run.” The latest polls of Republican voters show Walker leading, both nationally and in the early-nominating state of Iowa, with 25 percent.
But it’s early. And not everyone in the hall was sold on Walker’s aggressive talk about fighting terrorism. One activist said afterwards that he was a Walker supporter going in, but might look again at another CPAC favorite, Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who prefers a less interventionist foreign policy.
Walker made headlines last weekend when he said he wasn’t sure if President Obama is a Christian. “I don’t know,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. Walker also raised eyebrows when he defended Rudy Giuliani over his comment that Mr. Obama “doesn’t love America.” The former mayor of New York “can speak for himself," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Earlier this month in London, Walker raised another dust storm when he punted on the question of whether he believes in evolution.
On each occasion, Walker blamed the media for playing “gotcha.” On Thursday, after his CPAC address, the governor defended himself in interviews, saying he did not regret the comment on fighting terrorism.
“Let me be perfectly clear: I’m just pointing out the closest thing I have to handling this difficult situation is the 100,000 protesters I had to deal with,” Walker told reporters.
“You all will misconstrue things the way you see fit,” he added. “That’s the closest thing I have in terms of handling a difficult situation, not that there’s any parallel between the two.”
Later in the evening, a Walker spokeswoman put out a statement:
“Governor Walker believes our fight against ISIS is one of the most important issues our country faces,” said Kirsten Kukowski, referring to the Islamic State. “He was in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS. What the governor was saying was when faced with adversity he chooses strength and leadership. Those are the qualities we need to fix the leadership void this White House has created.”
It was Walker’s battle against public-sector unions in 2011 that made him a conservative rock star in the first place. After the uproar and mass demonstrations, he survived a recall election. Last November he won another term as governor – giving him three election victories in four years.
Walker is also set to sign “right to work” legislation, another blow to Wisconsin unions, this time in the private sector. The bill, passed Wednesday in the state Senate, would allow employees to opt out of mandatory dues in workplaces with union contracts.
Now, like all governors running for president, Walker faces the challenge of convincing voters that he’s ready to run the country, which is especially tricky when it comes to national security.
Understandably, he went for the analogy that is closest to his experience, at least in terms of the intense pressure he faced. But, writes Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza, there are some comparisons that are best not made.
“The problem for Walker,” he writes, “is that Americans protesting in a state capitol over labor issues, while serious, is just not on the same level as the threat posed by a militant group that uses beheadings, burnings and other savagery to spread terror in the world.”
So where does Walker take his early lead in the polls? He’s earned attention and support for being brash. But is he presidential? That question will matter to GOP primary voters and, if he gets the nomination, to the larger electorate.