Scott Walker: All You Need To Know

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Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speak at a Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership in Las Vegas, Nevada July 14, 2015. David Becker/Reuters

Twelve Americans have become president without having earned a college degree. (Two of them are on Mount Rushmore.) Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who studied at Marquette University but left before graduating, hopes to make that number thirteen—and the first since Harry Truman.

Walker announced on July 13 what has been long expected: he is running for president. He is the fifteenth prominent Republican to declare for the White House and the seventh governor. He won’t be the last one on either score.

The Basics

  • Name: Scott Kevin Walker
  • Date of Birth: November 2, 1967
  • Place of Birth: Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Religion: Evangelical Christian
  • Political Party: Republican Party
  • Marital Status: Married (Tonette)
  • Children: Matthew (20) and Alex (19)
  • Alma Mater: Marquette University (attended)
  • Career: Governor of Wisconsin (2011- present); Executive of Milwaukee Country Executive (2002-2010) Wisconsin State Assembly (1993-2002); Marketing and Fundraising, American Red Cross (1990-1994)
  • Twitter Handle: @ScottWalker

Campaign Announcement

Walker announced his run for the White House at the Waukesha County Expo Center in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee.

He began his speech with a sure-fire winner of an opening line: “I Love America.”

Like many presidential candidates before him, Walker used his announcement to recount his biography and his accomplishments, and to mention people who have inspired him along the way. When he turned to policy matters, he was long on criticism and promises and short on specific policy measures. He summarized his platform in three words: “I’m for Reform. Growth. Safety.”

The “safety” part of Walker’s platform deals with foreign policy. He argues that President Obama has left Americans imperiled:

Today sadly, under the Obama/Clinton doctrine, America is leading from behind and we’re headed toward a disaster.

We have a president who drew a line in the sand and allowed it to be crossed. A president who call ISIS the JV squad, Yemen a success story and Iran a place we can do business with. Iran…think about that.

Walker went on to vow that he would terminate the nuclear deal with Iran, help “our Kurd and Sunni allies reclaim land taken by ISIS,” stand by Israel, stand up to Putin, resist Chinese aggression, spend more on defense and “fight to win.”

Walker’s Story

Walker was born in Colorado but moved to Plainfield, Iowa at age three when his father became a pastor at a local Baptist Church. Seven years later the Walkers relocated to Delavan, Wisconsin, a small town located roughly fifty miles southwest of Milwaukee. As a teenager, Walker was an Eagle Scout, and he occasionally gave sermons in his father’s church. But rather than following his father into the ministry, he chose a career in politics.

Walker ran his first campaign for public office in 1990, but he lost his bid for the State Assembly. He has been on a winning streak ever since. In 1993, he won a State Assembly seat in a more conservative district. He stayed in the State Assembly until 2002, when he won a special election to be Milwaukee County Executive. He subsequently won two regular elections. He stood out during his time as county executive; most of the members of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors were Democrats.

Walker launched an ill-fated run for governor in 2005. After a year of campaigning, he dropped out of the race before any votes were cast. He had more success on his second try, winning the governorship in November 2010.

Shortly after taking office in 2011, he proposed legislation limiting collective bargaining rights. That triggered an epic political donnybrook. More than one hundred thousand protesters swarmed Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city. Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate staged their own kind of protest: they left Wisconsin in an effort to prevent the quorum needed to act on the bill. Republicans legislators still managed to pass it. The move made Walker a hero to conservatives and a villain to the labor movement. Walker survived a bitterly fought recall election in 2012, and he was reelected governor in 2014.

Walker’s Message

Walker admires Ronald Reagan. He often invokes the 40th president when discussing issues, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. He also likes to compare himself to Reagan, who was “a fellow governor who cut taxes and as a leader who proved his mettle by staring down organized labor.” He will likely continue to invoke Reagan’s name as he positions himself in the 2016 campaign as an unabashed conservative who will stand by his principles and “who will fight and win for America.”

Foreign Policy Views

As with most governors who seek the presidency, Walker has limited foreign policy experience. As he puts it, foreign policy is “not an area that governors typically look at.” He urges voters to worry less about specific foreign policy experience and more about leadership abilities, because foreign policy is:

Something that’s not just about having PhDs, or talking to PhDs—it’s about leadership.

When Senator Marco Rubio, one of Walker’s rivals for the GOP nomination, said that “there is no way” a governor can be ready “on Day One to manage U.S. foreign policy,” Walker retorted: “I think he’s questioning how Ronald Reagan was ready.”

General Foreign Policy Worldview

Walker’s general approach to foreign policy mirrors that of most other GOP presidential candidates. (Rand Paul is the obvious exception.) He thinks that President Obama has been weak in his handling of foreign policy and unwilling to recognize threats like ISIS:

When you have an administration … who doesn’t take seriously the threats, who doesn’t invest the resources needed to take those threats seriously, you open the door to chaos.

He promises to provide strong, tough leadership that will deter America’s adversaries and rally its friends and allies:

The world needs to know that there is no better friend and no worse enemy than the United States of America.

Overall, however, Walker has tended to limit his public comments on foreign policy. That reluctance to speak about foreign policy became an issue in February when he spoke in London at Chatham House, Britain’s leading international affairs think tank. The moderator not surprisingly asked him several foreign policy questions, which Walker declined to answer. He defended his reluctance to speak by saying:

I just think for me, commenting on foreign policy or, in this case, economic policy in a country where you’re a visitor is not the politest of things.

When Walker has waded into foreign policy discussions, the results haven’t necessarily been what he wanted. Shortly after returning from London, he answered a question at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference about international terrorism by saying:

I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil. We will have someone who leads and ultimately we’ll send a message that not only will we protect American soil, but do not, do not take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world. We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.

Critics complained that he had equated union members exercising their constitutional right to protest with international terrorists. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, now Walker’s rival for the GOP presidential nomination, called the remark “inappropriate” and “a mistake.” Walker insisted that he was not equating protesters with terrorists, but rather was offering up “the closest thing I have in terms of handling a difficult situation, not that there’s any parallel between the two.”

Days later, Walker triggered criticism with a different set of remarks. At the close of a speech for the Club of Growth, a conservative advocacy group, a questioner said that many people viewed the Chatham House performance as a sign Walker was “not prepared to speak about foreign policy” and then asked what he was doing to prepare for the White House. In his answer, Walker said Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981 was, “the most significant policy decision of my lifetime.” He added:

Years later, documents released from the Soviet Union showed that…The Soviet Union started treating [Reagan] more seriously once he did something like that. Ideas have to have consequences. And I think [President Barack Obama] has failed mainly because he’s made threats and hasn’t followed through on them.

Whether Reagan’s decision was the most significant act in recent history is a matter of opinion and not fact. But there is no evidence that the documents Walker referred to exist. Reagan’s own ambassador to the Soviet Union dismissed the claim as “utter nonsense.”

The Middle East

How does Walker’s general foreign policy worldview translate into specific steps to respond to specific challenges and opportunities? In terms of radical Islamic terrorism, which Walker has identified as “the greatest threat to future generations,” it means relying more on military power:

I think aggressively, we need to take the fight to ISIS and any other radical Islamic terrorist in and around the world, because it’s not a matter of when they attempt an attack on American soil, or not if I should say, it’s when, and we need leadership that says clearly, not only amongst the United States but amongst our allies, that we’re willing to take appropriate action.

Walker believes that Obama withdrew U.S. troops too hastily from Iraq, thereby sowing the seeds for the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. To deal with that threat, Walker says“I’d rather take the fight to them than wait for them to bring the fight to us.” He would do so by going beyond airstrikes and drone strikes:

We have to be—go beyond just aggressive air strikes. We have to look at other surgical methods. And ultimately, we have to be prepared to put boots on the ground if that’s what it takes.

When asked whether that means he favors ordering U.S. troops to return to Iraq, as Senator Lindsey Graham has argued, Walker says he is “not arguing that’s the first approach.” He thinks for now the United States can roll back the ISIS threat with more modest steps:

We have a capacity to reclaim Iraq with the Iraqi forces that are there as long as we unleash the power that’s already there by the American armed forces.

To that end, he proposes “lifting the political restrictions on our military personnel in Iraq” so that they can better help Iraqis defeat the Islamic State.

Overall, Walker’s insistence on keeping all military options on the table may have less to do with an enthusiasm for military action and more to do with a conviction that it is a mistake to put limits on what the United States might do:

Once we start saying how far we’re willing to go or how many troops we’re willing to invest, we send a horrible message, particularly to foes in the Middle East who are willing to wait us out.

The political risk in that position, of course, is that voters might see only the prospect of new wars and not a broader deterrent tactic.

Iran

Walker wants a tougher U.S. policy on Iran. He responded to the news that a nuclear deal had been struck with Iran by issuing a statement denouncing the agreement:

President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran will be remembered as one of America’s worst diplomatic failures. The deal allows Tehran to dismantle U.S. and international sanctions without dismantling its illicit nuclear infrastructure—giving Iran’s nuclear weapons capability an American stamp of approval. In crafting this agreement, President Obama has abandoned the bipartisan principles that have guided our nonproliferation policy and kept the world safe from nuclear danger for decades. Instead of making the world safer, this deal will likely lead to a nuclear arms race in the world’s most dangerous region. What’s worse, the deal rewards the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with a massive financial windfall, which Iran will use to further threaten our interests and key allies, especially Israel.

I call on all congressional leaders and presidential candidates, including Secretary Clinton, to repudiate this agreement. Iran’s Supreme Leader should know that a future American president will not be bound by this diplomatic retreat. Undoing the damage caused by this deal won’t be easy. But when the United States leads, and has a president who isn’t eager to embrace Iran, the world will follow. In order to ensure the safety of America and our allies, the next president must restore bipartisan and international opposition to Iran’s nuclear program while standing with our allies to roll back Iran’s destructive influence across the Middle East.

Before entering the race, Walker vowed to repudiate the deal if he made it to the White House. When asked if he would do that even if it meant breaking with U.S. allies, Walker’s answer was succinct: “Absolutely.” That prompted Obama to say:

It would be a foolish approach to take, and perhaps Mr. Walker–after he’s taken some time to bone up on foreign policy–will feel the same way.

Walker responded to Obama’s jab by reiterating his critique of the president’s foreign policy:

President Obama’s failed leadership has put him at odds with many across the country, including members of his own party, and key allies around the world. Americans would be better served by a president who spent more time working with governors and members of Congress rather than attacking them.

Walker’s criticism of the Iran deal is tied to his belief that “the current administration is not giving Israel the support it needs…the president is making bad deals with a country that wishes to wipe Israel off the map.” Walker vows that during his presidency there will be “no daylight” between the two countries. As Middle East hands like to point out, though, political daylight between the United States and Israel is not unique to Obama’s time in office; it happened, for instance, during the presidency of Walker’s favorite politician, Ronald Reagan.

Russia and Ukraine

Walker wants to get tough with Vladimir Putin. He said in his campaign announcement speech:

We need to stop the aggression of Russia into sovereign nations. Putin bases his policies on Lenin’s old principle: probe with bayonets, if you encounter mush, push; if you encounter steel, stop.

With Obama and Clinton, Putin has encountered years of mush. The United States needs a foreign policy that puts steel in front of our enemies.

To that end, he favors intensified sanctions on Russia and the provision of lethal military aid to Ukraine “so they can defend themselves against Russian aggression.” He also wants the United States to provide more support for Ukraine’s anti-corruption initiatives and to declare that NATO will permanently station troops in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

China

Walker visited China on a trade mission in 2013, but he hasn’t said much about U.S. policy toward Beijing. He does want the United States to take a tougher line against China, particularly with respect to its activities in the South China Sea:

A serious American response is necessary. The most important step is to reestablish U.S. military strength. We must increase the size of our Navy, strengthen the self-defense capabilities of our regional partners, and regularly engage in freedom-of-navigation patrols throughout the Pacific. Boosting our trade relations with friendly Pacific nations will fortify our economic presence in one of the world’s most consequential regions.

Increasing the size of the Navy is an expensive proposition; Walker hasn’t identified what he would give up to accommodate the additional spending. The other items on his to-do list are things the U.S. government is currently doing.

Trade

Walker says he is “a strong advocate for free and open trade.” Like most governors, he has participated in many overseas trade missions, in his case trying to drum up business for Wisconsin’s exports and to encourage foreign firms to invest in the state. He went to Europe twice in the first half of 2015, using it as an opportunity to flag the potential benefits of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would create free trade between the United States and Europe.

He also supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He urged Republican members of Congress to pass trade promotion authority because it would “allow the Republican-controlled Congress to hold this president accountable for presenting a bad trade agreement” by giving them the chance to block it.

Immigration

Walker’s views on immigration have shifted. As Milwaukee county executive, he signed resolutions applauding the contributions that undocumented immigrants make and calling for federal action to grant them legal status. As late as 2013, he argued that it “makes sense” to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and to make it easier for people to immigrate legally into the United States. He also argued that immigrants in the United States legally should get “first preference” and doubted that there would be a need for “border security and a wall and all that…if you had a better, saner way to let people into the country in the first place.”

More recently, he has opposed a path to citizenship. For example, in March he said publicly, “”I don’t believe in amnesty.” (Participants at a meeting Walker held for business leaders a few weeks later reported that he told them that undocumented immigrants should not be deported and that he would support allowing some of them to become citizens. Walker’s spokesperson disputed those claims.)

The shift in Walker’s public comments on immigration prompted Fox News’s Chris Wallace to press him to admit he had changed his position. Walker did just that:

And my view has changed. I’m flat out saying it.…

I look at the problems we’ve experienced for the last few years. I’ve talked to governors on the border and others out there. I’ve talked to people all across America.

And the concerns I have is that we need to secure the border. We ultimately need to put in place a system that works. A legal immigration system that works.

Walker now stresses that immigration reform should be “based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages.” Some conservative scholars and activists have criticized that claim, noting that ample economic research shows that undocumented workers do not hurt the economy or take jobs from native workers.

Climate Change

Walker has not said whether he thinks climate change is real and the result of human activity. He has signed a pledge to oppose any tax or fee increases intended to combat climate change.

More on Walker

Walker summarized his worldview in his 2013 book, co-authored with Marc Thiessen, in Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.

The New York Times has “Things You May Not Know About Scott Walker.” The Washington Post has “Five Things You Might Not Know About Scott Walker” and “Scott Walker on Issues of 2016 Campaign.” NPR has “5 Things You Should Know About Scott Walker.” CBS News also has “Five Things to Know About Scott Walker.” USA Today has “Six Things to Know About Scott Walker.” MSNBC has “5 Things We Learned About Scott Walker in 2015.” MTV has “15 Things You Should Know About Scott Walker, Who Just Announced He’s Running For President.”

James M. Lindsay is senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations website.

In the same series, by the same author, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio,Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Martin O’Malley, Hillary Clinton, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and Jeb Bush.