Rick Perry was the first to drop out of the 2016 presidential race, but even he isn’t the Rick Perry of 2016. That bit of notoriety belongs to Scott Walker.
Perry, you may recall, was long seen as the big shot of the 2012 campaign. The fourth-term governor of a booming Texas, he was believed to be the one candidate who had the ability to pull together grass-roots conservatives and enough of the establishment to ward off Mitt Romney in the nominating contest. For a time, he had the poll numbers to back up the hype. And then his campaign just fell apart. Everyone remembers his “oops” moment, when he couldn’t recall the name of the third federal agency he intended to shut down as president. But the truth is that by then he had already fallen from a 12-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average to fourth place. For whatever reason — and many have been bandied about — Perry just wasn’t the candidate in flesh and blood that he appeared to be on paper.
Fast-forward four years. The stunningly early end to Walker’s campaign, announced last night, will probably be likened to that of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2012, but I think that’s too superficial. Yes, they were both plainspoken-to-the-point-of-boring candidates from the Midwest. But while Pawlenty was viewed as a potential dark horse, Walker was considered a top-tier candidate by nearly everyone. (Yep, that includes me.) He had survived the intense targeting of Democrats, labor unions and left-wingers generally in both the recall election he faced in 2012 and his re-election just last fall. He had a clear message at hand — I’m the guy to rein in Washington’s out-of-control bureaucracy the way I reined in Wisconsin’s public-sector unions — with the apparent appeal of Perry’s 2012 promise to take Texas’ economic boom nationwide. He had the ostensible ability to bring together conservatives and establishment Republicans. And yet, he simply wasn’t able to make anything of it.
In some ways, Walker is the biggest political casualty of Trump-mania. More than any other candidate, Walker seemed to lose his bearings amid Donald Trump’s surge. Look at immigration, on which Walker seemingly has been on every side of the issue more than once, and often in response to Trump’s demagoguery. Other GOP candidates have adjusted to Trump — although I still think the brash immigration talk has been mostly a way for The Donald to prove just how unorthodox and non-political a politician he is, regardless of the issue — but Walker seemed to be thrown completely off-kilter by it.
Even that, though, may be merely symptomatic. I alluded last week to having heard some disturbing stories out of the Walker campaign. I’ll omit the specifics to protect my source, but suffice it to say the Walker campaign at times seemed unable to make even basic logistical decisions for holding events. This is Campaign 101 kind of stuff. So is making sure your candidate has a message he can stick to on major, controversial issues such as immigration — or, at the very least, that he won’t be guilty of changing his tune on a daily or even hourly basis.
As is always the case, it’s hard to know how much of this problem stems from the candidate himself vs. the people around him. But as is also always the case, it’s the candidate’s fault either way. Whether the candidate can’t choose and manage competent advisers, won’t listen to them, doesn’t have enough principle or hasn’t taken the time to sort out what he really believes, or is really making the mistakes himself, the buck stops with him. There are a lot of disappointed Walker fans this morning, but better to learn the truth now than deep into the primaries, during the general election or — worst of all — after Jan. 20, 2017.