Any chef will tell you that you need great ingredients to pull off a great meal. Less discussed but just as true: You need to cook the ingredients in the right order.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has nearly all of the right ingredients to win the GOP nomination. He is popular among both anti-establishment activists and the big donors of the establishment. He has working-class appeal (desperately needed for the GOP), and he’s battle-tested in his home state — a state many believe the Republicans could finally pick off in a presidential election.
The question is whether his timing is off. In countless discussions I had at the Conservative Political Action Conference, as well as among people I’ve talked to who attended the Club for Growth meeting in Florida last weekend, the concern for friends, and the hope for foes, is that Walker is peaking too soon.
That the Wisconsin governor is not ready for prime time is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom. At an off-the-record yet widely reported donor event in New York City (the one where Rudy Giuliani accused the president of not loving America), Walker avoided concrete or specific answers on nearly every major issue not squarely in his Wisconsin comfort zone.
At the Club for Growth event, the moderator interviewing Walker told him point-blank that “the feedback” from that New York event “was that you
were not prepared to speak about
On Saturday, the Washington Examiner’s Byron York asked Walker where he came down on the fight over funding for the Department of Homeland Security and about the larger question of immigration policy. Walker replied with a gale of word fog.
Walker’s defenders, and they are legion, will tell you that he never planned on being a top-tier candidate this soon. It’s a sign of his broad appeal, the grass-roots hostility to a Jeb Bush coronation and the liberal media’s fear of Walker’s potential that he’s being put under the microscope so early.
Walker said as much to York, “We had no idea that after that Iowa summit there would be that kind of acceleration to the race. But we’re here, and we’re not going to complain about it.”
All of that is undoubtedly true to one extent or another, and Walker’s reply is a good one. But so what? He’s still facing the challenge of being the front-runner before he is ready.
It’s a bigger problem than it might seem. Walker planned on defining himself to the country on his timetable. With that plan in ashes, he’s facing a liberal news corps and a Republican field of competitors hellbent on defining Walker if he won’t. From the media, that means lots of questions about President Barack Obama’s religion, Walker’s views on evolution and other ridiculous gaffe hunts.
Walker has been “punting” — his word — on such questions, but also on more serious topics. That is a fine tactic when few are paying attention. Other candidates have been punting on various issues, too, but no one knows or cares because they aren’t the front-runner. When you’re in the spotlight, punting stops being a way to avoid giving an answer and instead it becomes the answer.
Walker is in danger of being the guy known for not having a good — or any — answer to tough questions. That’s particularly poisonous for him, given that he is running on leadership and truth-telling.
Of course, it’s not all downside. Being unfairly targeted by the media also has the effect of boosting your name and, more important, causing the rank and file to rally to your defense. For example, New York Times columnist Gail Collins attacked Walker for higher education cuts that occurred before Walker took office. And the hard left is frequently concocting attacks they then have to retract.
But Walker cannot afford to become merely a culture war avatar of grass-roots resentment against the “lamestream media.” That’s the route to a radio show, not the White House. His path to the nomination still hinges on being the most acceptable alternative to establishment front-runner Bush and to anti-establishment heroes Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
If he can’t thread that needle, Sen. Marco Rubio will be happy — and well-prepared — to step in.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review and a columnist for Tribune Media.