Saturday morning, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said that "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime" was Ronald Reagan's aggressive response to an air traffic controllers strike in 1981. Forget Nixon's outreach to China, Reagan's defense buildup, or the Iraq war — it's all about the firing of about 11,000 federal employees.
Walker has made similar remarks about Reagan and the air traffic controllers before. But now, he is one of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016. And he is trying to convince party elites that he can be their guy. But instead of checking off the foreign policy box, this latest comment adds to a list of foreign policy screwups.
What Walker said
The context surrounding this quote is important. Walker had repeatedly asserted that the air traffic controllers strike was a critical foreign policy decision, arguing that it sent the Soviets a message that Reagan meant what he said. At one point, he cited Soviet documents to support his point — documents that, it turns out, were entirely made up. Reagan's own ambassador to the Soviet Union told Politifact back in January that Walker's interpretation of these events is "utter nonsense."
Earlier this week, Walker had gotten into hot water for saying that his fight with union at home prepared him for fighting ISIS abroad. "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world," Walker said. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, another 2016 hopeful and no squishy moderate, called Walker's comments "inappropriate."
So during Walker's appearance at a Club for Growth event Saturday morning, Frayda Levin, a board member of the conservative economic group, asked Walker about his struggles on this issue. "The feedback [after a meeting with New York donors] was you were not prepared to speak about foreign policy," she said.
That's when Walker responded with his instantly-infamous line about Reagan's confrontation with air traffic controllers being "the most significant foreign policy decision" in his life. "It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world" that "we weren't to be messed with."
Why it's a problem
As Levin's comments suggest, a lot of important Republican donors and activists care a lot about foreign policy. The fact that Walker's response to criticism of his past line on foreign policy is to double down on a transparently ridiculous claim will give this wing of the party zero confidence that he could manage America's world affairs.
Walker has no experience on foreign policy. That's not necessarily a problem — Jeb Bush, another leading 2016 candidate, doesn't either. But Bush has at least made an effort on foreign policy. His recent address on the subject contained several embarrassing gaffes, but his broad themes were basically acceptable to the GOP mainstream.
Bush and Walker are two of the most plausible candidates, both competing for the support of the Republican establishment. Whichever one ends up sounding better on foreign policy could end up getting a huge advantage in the invisible primary, the competition for support among party elites that plays a huge role in determining who wins the nomination.
Right now, it's Bush by a mile.