Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a prospective Republican presidential contender, said Saturday he does not know whether President Obama is a Christian. "I don't know," Walker said in an interview at the JW Marriott hotel in Washington, where he was attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.
Just a couple of weeks before his re-election bid last fall, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was asked by local journalists about contraception access. He dodged, refusing to give a straight answer. The Republican governor's far-right record on social issues was well established, but Walker still wasn't comfortable speaking his mind so close to Election Day.
During the same campaign, Walker dodged questions about his opposition to a Wisconsin pay-equity law. He was equally non-committal on marriage rights. More recently, the likely Republican presidential candidate wouldn't even say whether he believes in evolution.
Taken together, there's an explanation for evasiveness like this: Walker realizes his right-wing views would alienate the American mainstream, and he lacks the courage of his convictions necessary to defend his often-extreme perspective.
But when it comes to Walker's rhetoric about President Obama, an uglier picture emerges.
When the Washington Post's reporters reminded the far-right governor that Obama has spoken repeatedly about his Christian faith, Walker pleaded ignorance. "I've actually never talked about it or I haven't read about that," he said, apparently having paid no attention to American politics over the last seven years.
Also over the weekend, Walker refused to say whether he believes the president loves his country. "You should ask the president what he thinks about America," Walker told the Associated Press. Pressed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as to whether he believes Obama loves America, he said, again, "I don't know."
Early yesterday, the governor and his allies had a new defense: Walker's evasiveness is irrelevant because the questions themselves shouldn't be asked.
Indeed, according to the governor himself, this is all part of a "media gotcha game." I've seen some, even on the left, express some sympathy for this argument -- let's press White House aspirants on their record and platform, but it's not altogether fair to ask random questions about their views on the outgoing president's personal beliefs. The entire line of inquiry, the argument goes, is intended solely to generate provocative headlines.
I understand the argument, but I think it's mistaken.
Consider the context. Walker headlined an event in New York City last week, where Rudy Giuliani spouted some ignorant nonsense directed at the president. Walker, who had to know he'd be asked about remarks made at his own event, was given an opportunity to distance himself from Giuliani's garbage, or at least say he disagreed with it, but the governor refused.
It was, to a very real degree, a leadership test for Scott Walker, which he failed miserably. It would have been incredibly easy for him to say, "I disagree vehemently with the president, but I'm sure he loves his country," but the governor took the cowardly way out.
And it was at this point that journalists, like many voters, started to wonder just how ridiculous the governor's views really are. He won't say whether he accepts modern biology. He won't say whether Obama loves America. He won't say whether the Christian president is a Christian. He has a record of repeatedly dodging simple, straightforward questions, which most political leaders are able to answer effortlessly.
It may be debatable whether these are good questions. It's not debatable that Walker has provided cringe-worthy answers.
I can appreciate why the governor's increasingly bizarre rhetoric seems irrelevant compared to issues like the economy and national security, but in any race for national office, the public gets to know candidates pretty well. It's not unreasonable for Americans to wonder, "Is a presidential candidate a crackpot? Does he pander to extremists? Is he capable of intelligent answers to simple questions? Does he have a spine?"
The governor is in the process of introducing himself the nation. In recent weeks, he's made a fine impression with radical elements of the Republican Party's base, but he's simultaneously making it clear to everyone else that when it comes to genuine leadership abilities, Scott Walker is obviously not ready for prime time.