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Scott Walker is trying to be the GOP primary’s hawkiest hawk

Scott Walker.
Scott Walker.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Scott Walker has had a tough time with foreign policy. Most famously, he asserted that Ronald Reagan's decision to take on striking air traffic controllers was "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime." That and many other moments have given the impression that foreign policy is just not a particularly strong area for him.

Today, he's trying to fix that. At 12:15, Walker plans to give a speech that, judging from advance excerpts, takes a more informed, and quite hard-line, stance on the Middle East. Basically, Walker's plan appears to be to run as the Number One Hawk in the GOP field.

"Yes, the world is complex, but some things are simple: There is good and there is evil," Walker plans to say. "America is a force for good in the world. Radical Islamic terrorists are agents of pure evil."

It's not subtle. And it's not designed to be.

Walker's pitch: I will defeat ISIS and Iran

The core of Walker's argument, according to the excerpts, is a "plan" for combating "the threats of radical Islamic terrorism." America is "at war with radical Islamic terrorism. It will not go away overnight. This is a generational struggle," Walker will say.

Obviously, this refers principally to ISIS. But Walker also sees the Iranian government as an exemplar of dangerous radical Islam. "Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism," the excerpts read. "To believe that a stable and lasting Middle East can be built by working with Iran, any more than by working with ISIS, isn’t statesmanship. It’s pure fantasy."

Walker defines combating both ISIS and Iran, and seeing them as part of the same threat, as key to America's global foreign policy credibility. "How can we deter our sophisticated adversaries in Eastern Europe and competitors in the South China Sea if we cannot defeat the barbarians of ISIS and roll back the theocrats in Tehran?" he plans to ask, rhetorically.

It's not clear from the excerpts exactly how Walker plans to "defeat" both Iran and ISIS — which, I might add, are currently at war with one another in Iraq and Syria. But it's clear that Walker is, at least rhetorically, positioning himself to the interventionist right of the Republican party. His argument is classic neoconservatism of the sort from George W. Bush's first term: There's a lot of evil in the world, and American power needs to be wielded to defeat it.

This isn't a message Walker arrived at randomly. After a series of embarrassing foreign policy missteps around this February, Walker's team began an aggressive retooling effort, bringing in a team of advisers, many of them highly qualified, to help him craft his message for the rest of the primary.

The result is an interesting case study in how parties maintain ideological consistency. Walker's team reached out to well-known Republicans, such as former Sen. Jim Talent, as that's whom they see as reliable voices on foreign policy. These people are generally hawkish, because that has been the party consensus for some time. Hence, Walker goes from having ill-defined views on world affairs to endorsing a set of clearly hawkish, often neoconservative principles.

This is how such campaigns often end up reinforcing their party's foreign policy ideologies. And you can see it especially with this GOP field — though Republicans are hardly alone in this — in the way that candidates like Walker get socialized into the party consensus by virtue of the people they naturally reach out to for advice. (Other candidates, such as Marco Rubio, arrived on the campaign trail already holding those views.) Important party donors, who wish to keep the consensus in line, help reinforce this further. The lone exception in this primary, Rand Paul, is currently floundering — thanks in part to his non-interventionist foreign policy stance.

Walker's speech is trouble for Rubio

At the moment, there are three really plausible GOP mainstream (read: other than Donald Trump) candidates in the race: Walker, Rubio, and Jeb Bush. Up to this point, Rubio has been the clear standard-bearer for the hawkish wing of the party.

Walker's address is a clear challenge to Rubio. Walker is essentially announcing that he's competing for the support of neoconservative activists and donors, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose support could make a real difference in the primary. This is a bit of a zero-sum game: These people either throw their support to Rubio or to Walker. That creates some tension between the two non-Bush establishment candidates.

And indeed, Walker might be starting to get some traction on this issue. Last month, he got into a bit of a spat with Bush about whether the candidates would promise to renege on the Iran nuclear deal on "Day One" of their presidency. Bush said no, Walker said yes. To at least one prominent hawk, the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, Walker got the better of the exchange.

"Bush seems more Bush-like, and Walker seems more Reagan-like; and being more Reagan-like is probably a little better in a Republican primary," Kristol told Politico. "I think Walker showed a certain toughness and confidence in being willing to mix it up with Bush, and that toughness usually serves politicians well."

Friday's speech is Walker trying to build on that good impression. He's calculating that in the critical "invisible primary" competition for party elite support, he can successfully compete with Rubio for the neocon faction.

Now we'll see if that works.

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