When it became clear that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had won reelection handily Tuesday night, I was all set to write an article hyping up his prospects to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. It seemed to make total sense — he's been elected three times in a blue state, while fighting hard for conservative priorities in a way that's impressed both the GOP's base and its elites.
But then I sat down and watched his victory speech from Tuesday night:
The very beginning is nice, as Walker thanks God for his win and gets some applause. But it's all downhill from there. His delivery is stilted. His facial expressions are alternately blank and smug. He chooses strange words to emphasize ("that's just not the American dree-eeam," he says twice). Overall, he looks and sounds like a whole lot like a Milwaukee County Executive — and not at all like a potential president. I've seen Walker speak before and knew he wasn't the most charismatic guy around, but watching this speech during a truly great week for him really drove this weakness home to me.
None of this has any bearing on Walker's accomplishments or qualifications. In an ideal world, this stuff wouldn't matter at all. But in a world where primary candidates rise and fall in the polls based partly on their performance in televised debates, it could seriously hurt Walker's chances.
As many political commentators have pointed out, Walker faces a "Pawlenty problem." That's in reference to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who seemed on paper to be a perfectly good 2012 nominee for Republicans.
When Pawlenty actually ran, though, he ended up exciting no one. He failed to distinguish himself in debates, went nowhere in the polls, and ended up quitting the race in August 2011 after embarrassingly being defeated in the Ames straw poll by Michele Bachmann. And Pawlenty's poor performance was against a field where front-runner Mitt Romney looked flawed and everyone else seemed like a joke.
The 2016 GOP field could be much more crowded with formidable figures. Chris Christie and Ted Cruz both suck all the oxygen out of whichever room they're in. Marco Rubio resembles Barack Obama in being young, talented, and a potential historic demographic first. Other likely candidates, like Rand Paul and Rick Perry, may not be the most talented orators, but are unmistakably unique personalities that will clearly stand out from the field. Even Jeb Bush has the claim to fame of being George W. Bush's brother.
Walker's problem will be figuring out how to get anyone to pay attention to him. Sure, Walker will say that he fought unions a few years back. So will Chris Christie, if he runs — and not only will he make sure to mention that constantly, but his entire persona will make him appear much more like a fighter. Sure, Walker will support various policy proposals favored by conservatives. So will the rest of the field. If John Kasich runs, Walker won't even have the claim to being the race's sole bland Midwestern governor.
This problem certainly doesn't doom Walker's chances. Every candidate will have a weakness in some area, and uncharismatic candidates like Al Gore and John Kerry have certainly managed to win presidential nominations before.
But if Walker was a more compelling speaker who manufactured YouTube-ready sound bites like Chris Christie does, he'd probably already be the GOP frontrunner. As it is, if he does run, he'll definitely have to spend a lot of time in debate prep.
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