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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Pinning Down Scott Walker’s Ideology

During the last decade, as the Republican Party slid remorselessly towards the extremist Right, its tribunes have had an obvious motive to deny that phenomenon and proclaim the GOP as situated firmly in the sensible center, and/or to make the false equivalence claim that Democrats have matched or exceeded the lurch into questionable territory. So if only in self-defense or for purposes of analytical clarity, Democrats need to pay attention to arguments over ideology and the GOP.
That’s why I paid attention to a polite argument this last week between liberal blogger Kevin Drum of Mother Jones and conservative analysts Sean Trende and David Byler of RealClearPolitics, about where to situate Scott Walker on the ideological spectrum. I wrote up my observations at Washington Monthly:

I somehow missed Kevin Drum’s February 11 post quoting a San Francisco State political scientist who in turn was using a Stanford professor’s methodology to argue that Scott Walker’s more conservative than any GOP presidential nominee since before Ronald Reagan.
This post definitely caught Sean Trende and David Byler’s attention, leading to a very elaborate (if polite) dashing of cold water on the Scott-Walker-as-the-New-Barry-Goldwater hypothesis, if that’s what you want to call it. Trende and Byler come at it from several different directions, illustrating the advantage columnists with relatively few time and space limitations have over a blogger who has to make do quickly with the news material at hand. As it happens, I agree with one of their arguments against the underlying DIME system of Stanford’s Adam Bonica, which assigns ideological “scores” to politicians based on the characteristics of his or her donors.

While donors probably tend to support candidates who generally share their ideology, other factors might affect donor decisions – what issues the candidate focuses on the most, the candidate’s public persona and life history, how much a donor simply “likes” a candidate – and all of these preferences are rolled into this rating.

As Trende & Byler note, Barack Obama’s pre-convention “rating” in 2008 was very far to the “left.” Does that mean lefty donors (assuming that can really be measured accurately) thought he was as lefty as they were? Or simply that he got them all? Or perhaps that they knew he was “moderate” but was less “moderate” than Hillary Clinton? Or maybe that they thought he was more electable? Or because of the historic character of his candidacy? It’s entirely unclear, but it is clear rating a candidate’s ideology on his or her donors is perilous and ignores all sorts of context issues, particularly in terms of the choices available to donors.
In the end, though, my only real disagreement with Kevin involves his conclusion: that Scott Walker is a lot more conservative than he seems. He could have that backwards in a way that helps explain why conservative donors are attracted to Walker: he’s conservative for a blue state governor. Why is Walker, and not, say, Rick Perry, famous for ferocious attacks on the collective bargaining rights of public employees? Because public employees in Texas don’t have any collective bargaining rights to begin with. The same is true of Walker’s famous conservative evangelical religiosity, with God telling him to do this and that. Deep South Republicans talk that way all the time. So thanks to his context Walker seems more conservative than he necessarily is, and–here’s a big bonus for him–in a way that simultaneously creates an electability argument. If he can get re-elected in Wisconsin after taking positions that nobody would think twice about in deep-red states, he’s a brave conservative warrior and one who has proven he can persuade swing voters either despite or because of his hammer-headed characteristics.

So measuring ideology is tricky. Scott Walker is vastly more conservative than blue-state Republicans used to be by any objective measure. And so he exerts an appeal to conservative donors that some (objectively) even more conservative red-state politicians struggle to match. Part of his appeal is attributable to the attention he naturally gets; part comes from the thrill conservatives get from watching him beat the hated enemy on its home turf; and part is indeed an electability argument, made even more attractive because it does not involve compromise or “moderation.” He seems more conservative than he probably is, and in today’s GOP, it’s hard to look too conservative.

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