Scott Walker shared some focus group results with the New York Times's Patrick Healy, which say the Wisconsin governor is seen as "authentic," "real," and "approachable" by voters but not necessarily "smart" or "sophisticated." On a similar note, earlier this year a team of Washington Post reporters took a deep dive into Scott Walker's burgeoning fundraising operation, and discovered that his biggest problem was he's a little too real for rich, socially liberal bankers who live in New York and want to elect a Republican who'll repeal Dodd-Frank and cut their taxes:
"Sometimes you can say something and people think you don’t mean it and sometimes you can say something and people think you mean it," said one Republican who has seen this tension play out. "When Barack Obama said he’s against gay marriage in 2008, people didn’t think he meant it. But when Scott says it, people think he means it. This is a very big stumbling block for him on Wall Street."
This is an excellent point, and it's probably broader than the marriage issue. Wall Street, for example, loves George W. Bush because while Bush was happy to talk up free markets when it came time to cut taxes and deregulate, he also didn't hesitate to throw all that stuff out the window when it came time to pony up hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout money.
Realists and true believers
In politics, you have your realists and you have your true believers.
To say that Obama "didn't mean it" when he said he believed marriage is between a man and a woman is a little too simplistic. The point is that Obama was a realist. He wasn't prepared to take any political risks on behalf of the cause of marriage equality. At the same time, he was clearly committed to taking a pro-equality stance where politically viable. And he set about appointing federal judges who share the generally LGBTQ-friendly worldview of the elite Democratic Party. If the Supreme Court rules this week to make marriage equality the law of the land, it will be because Obama was in office to fill two vacancies — an office he might not have held had he taken a bolder stance.
Realists do what they have to do to get through the day (or the week or the month or the year), and then do what they can to deliver for their core supporters. It can work quite well, even when it aggravates activists.
True believers are different. They push the boundaries in inconvenient ways. They are indispensable for creating real political change, but they can also be dangerous and unpredictable. And it's probably not a coincidence that they rarely end up sitting in the Oval Office. It's simply too risky.
Take TARP. Nobody is going to explicitly run on a pro-bailouts platform, but the powers that be are generally looking for someone whose anti-bailout rhetoric is just talk — someone who'll set aside principles to avert a catastrophe.
Walker is a true believer; Jeb Bush is a realist
Walker has true believer written all over him. He's not just pro-life; he ran for student council on an anti-abortion platform in college (he also promised to bring INXS and REM to campus). He doesn't just like Ronald Reagan; he and his wife got married on Reagan's birthday and hold an annual Reagan-themed anniversary dinner. Apparently he can't even pretend to be insincere about marriage equality.
Like many politicians, he has a long track record of changing his positions and his message as circumstances change. In 1994, he ran for governor of Florida as a fire-breathing conservative, only to change tack in 1998. The new Jeb was still conservative, but less aggressively so — and less prone to saying provocative things. Jeb's father called supply-side economics "voodoo," then pledged to endorse it in 1988, then backed out of that pledge to avoid a government shutdown in 1990. Jeb's brother quietly partnered with Nancy Pelosi on a stimulus bill, while disavowing his father's flexibility on taxes.
The Bushes, in other words, are establishment guys. They stand for the Republican Party's conservative values, but most of all they stand for doing what it takes to win and to deliver for the establishment of which they are integral members.
To many, this contrast makes Walker look appealing. There are voters out there who want a true believer. And that is what makes Walker such a tantalizing figure — he's a true believer, but unlike a Ted Cruz he's not throwing bombs from the back benches. He's a real governor of a real state — a bluish state, at that — who could very possibly win a presidential election.
But there are also people out there who are looking for a cynic. And many of those people happen to be the people in a position to cut the six- and seven-figure checks the modern Super PAC desires.