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Once again the left is in a state of agitation over something Wisconsin’s governor said. As a Salon headline puts it with the usual understatement: “Scott Walker Loses His Mind: What’s Behind His Delusional ISIS-Unions Comparison.” Subheadline: “Comparing battles with unions to fighting terrorists, the cocky Wisconsin governor unites right and left in horror.”
We’d say “horror” overstates the right’s reaction and oversimplifies the left’s, which includes no small measure of glee. Nonetheless, the piece’s author, Joan Walsh, has a bit of a point.
Here’s how New York magazine’s Margaret Hartmann describes the exchange, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, that led to the comment in question:
When asked how he’d address threats like ISIS if he becomes commander-in-chief, Walker noted that as the governor of Wisconsin he already receives threat assessments from the FBI and the head of Wisconsin’s National Guard, and has been concerned about the threat from ISIS “for years.” He said we need a commander-in-chief who will “send a message, not only that we’ll protect American soil, but do not take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world. We need a leader with that kind of confidence.”
Okay, question answered! But then Walker added, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” referring to his battle against public-employee unions.
Walsh: “From the left, you can be disgusted by Walker comparing legal protests by labor unions and their supporters to the barbaric, blood-thirsty terrorism of ISIS.”
A Walker spokesman said in a statement: “Governor Walker believes our fight against ISIS is one of the most important issues our country faces. He was in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS. What the governor was saying was when faced with adversity he chooses strength and leadership. Those are the qualities we need to fix the leadership void this White House has created.”
That’s almost certainly a truthful description of the governor’s intent. Rhetorical excess is not his style and was not during the dispute with his union adversaries four years ago. (It was they, or anyway some of them, who depicted him as Hitler.) At CPAC, he was asked a question about an area of weakness for a governor seeking the presidency, foreign affairs, and in answering it he attempted to play to his strength. In the process, he carelessly made an invidious comparison—the sort of comparison that someone seeking the presidency should be at pains to avoid.
We are more interested, however, in Walker’s intended message about himself, which he has also delivered elsewhere in less inflammatory ways. “Walker argued that when Reagan fired the PATCO air-traffic controllers over their illegal strike, he was sending a message of toughness to Democrats and unions at home as well as our Soviet enemies abroad,” writes Larry Kudlow, reporting in National Review on the recent dinner where Rudy Giuliani stole the show. “Similarly, Walker believes his stance against unions in Wisconsin would be a signal of toughness to Islamic jihadists and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.”
Walker elaborated on the Patco comparison at Saturday’s Club for Growth meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., Politico reports. “Conservative allies defended Walker’s comment by noting that [George] Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, has himself said publicly that Reagan’s PATCO decision was ‘the most important foreign policy decision’ that the president made during his two terms.”
That’s true, but the matter is a bit more complicated, according to Peggy Noonan, who worked in the Reagan White House and researched the Patco strike for her 2001 biography, “When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan.” The Patco strike had direct foreign-policy implications: If the union had succeeded in closing down air traffic, AWACS defensive surveillance jets would have been grounded, leaving the U.S. vulnerable to attack.
“This hasn’t come up [publicly],” Drew Lewis, Reagan’s transportation secretary, told Noonan, “but the Soviets and others in the world understood the implications of the strike.” In that regard, there is no parallel to the Service Employees International Union or the Wisconsin Education Association.
Which is not to deny there is something to Walker’s analogy. He is offering what amounts to a character reference: His handling of the dispute with the unions shows that he is tough and determined, and toughness and determination are important qualities for someone who seeks to lead a country facing vicious enemies. That has such emotional resonance that it seems silly even to try to argue the contrary: What America needs is someone who wilts under pressure!
Yet toughness with one’s domestic adversaries is certainly not a sufficient condition for strong leadership on the world stage. Barack Obama proves it. He has played hardball politics very effectively over the years, not only with Republican foes like Mitt Romney but with fellow Democrats as well—Hillary Clinton most obviously but also Alice Palmer, his predecessor in the Illinois Senate, whom he dispatched by successfully challenging her petition signatures. And of course ObamaCare is largely a product of his exertion of sheer will.
Do Obama’s toughness, confidence and determination make him a good foreign-policy president? Far from it in our estimation—not because of these character traits but because he adheres to very bad ideas about America’s place in the world and how to resolve conflicts. It’s a safe bet Walker doesn’t share those ideas, so at least in that sense he would be an improvement. (The same is true of all other prospective Republican candidates with the possible exception of Rand Paul.) And it isn’t Walker’s “fault” that he lacks foreign-policy chops; such is the nature of being a governor. But one would like to know what his ideas are.
Politico reports that Walker told the Palm Beach crowd he’s been receiving foreign-policy briefings from former officials including Shultz and Henry Kissinger and other foreign-policy experts. He’ll be a stronger candidate if he can show he’s learning something about the subject.
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