Scott Walker Knows How To Beat Unions — What Else Can He Do?

The Wisconsin governor is promoting a new book about his triumphant union-busting, and stoking 2016 buzz. But before he runs for president, he'll have to make up his mind on Guantanmo Bay, waterboarding, marriage equality...

WASHINGTON — When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker decided to write a book, he knew early on it wouldn't be the sort of carefully curated autobiography favored by other ambitious politicians, replete with anecdotes about becoming an Eagle Scout and meeting his wife at church. Instead, he wanted to skip straight to the part where he got famous.

To his mind, there was good precedent for such an editorial decision.

"Did you see the movie Lincoln?" Walker asked in an interview, one of dozens he'd given up and down the Acela corridor in recent days. "I talked to a fair number of people who liked it, but went in expecting to start with him cutting logs and go all the way through to when he died. But Spielberg was smart enough to realize that [the battle over the 13th amendment] was a compelling story. And so here, the most compelling story we have in Wisconsin are the reforms that we did."

Thus was born Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and A Nation's Challenge, a heroic retelling of Walker's knock-down, drag-out fight with his state's public-sector unions, which culminated in a frenzied (and failed) crusade by Democrats to vote him out of office in 2011. The episode catapulted him to Republican stardom and turned him into a buzzed-about presidential prospect. It's easy to see why he would want to build a book around his name-making victory.

But even as he uses his book-promoting blitz to actively stoke 2016 speculation, he has made little effort to broaden his political brand. Walker — whose neatly pressed navy blue suits and folksy cadence make him seem like he's perpetually auditioning for the campaign trail — could run the risk of being type-cast within the GOP as the crusading midwestern union-buster who's a leading voice on pension reform, and not much else.

Throughout his interview with BuzzFeed, Walker repeatedly declined to comment on issues that veered too far outside his wheelhouse. For example, the co-author on his book is Marc Thiessen, the former George W. Bush speechwriter Washington Post columnist. They were introduced through Walker's agent and "hit it off" immediately, eventually spending several hours every Sunday night on Skype, with the governor leafing through old calendars and dictating his story to the writer. When it came time to send the book to press, Walker insisted on putting Thiessen's name on the cover beneath his own, breaking with a long-held tradition in politics of well-paid ghostwriters staying firmly behind the scenes.

"My style is what you see is what you get, and if somebody helped me write the book, I'm gonna put their name on the cover," Walker said.

But when it came to the national security issues that have defined Thiessen's career — he has been a full-throated champion of Bush-era interrogation methods, and the president's post-9/11 policies in general — Walker was unwilling to engage.

Asked whether he thought Guantanamo Bay should be shut down, Walker said, "To me, that's one of those were before I give opinions on things I like to weigh the facts, and not being elected to federal office I'm probably not privy enough right now to have firm opinions on that." And quizzed on the ethicality of water-boarding, Walker demurred again: "I don't spend enough time or have a knowledge base to comment."

Walker has yet to surround himself with D.C. operatives, and says he gets most of his insider Washington news by talking to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan a couple times a week. The absence of consultant stage managing may be good for conservative base cred, but it also means Walker has clearly not spent much time thinking about his strategy for the future.

Several Walker-hypers have noted his evangelical Christian faith as a potential advantage in a Republican primary, but he has shown little taste for culture war commentary. When the subject of Miley Cyrus' VMA performance came up during his BuzzFeed interview, he steered clear of fire and brimstone. "I don't come at it from a purity standpoint or a religious standpoint," he said, before dismissing the stunt as a "cynical attempt to get media interest."

And on social issues, he sounds a lot like a blue-state Republican running for reelection next year. Asked whether he thought the fading influence of the religious right was good or bad for his party, he shrugged.

"I don't know," Walker said. "I think a lot of people nostalgically think back to Reagan. He was a huge influence on me, and obviously he had a lot of respect for people of faith that sometimes people think back on. But I also know his focal point was on economic and fiscal issues. And for me and other governors, those are the things we elected on, and those are the things we tend to focus on."

He said he had no problem with ENDA, and noted that Wisconsin has had laws on the books banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation for more than 30 years.

On the marriage issue, he can probably best be described as "evolving." Pointing to a 2006 state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, Walker was quick to note — much to his apparent relief — that he was effectively powerless in the debate. "From my standpoint, as governor I won't ever have any say in that because if you're going to change the constitution, all it requires is the legislature and then a vote of the people," he said.

Meanwhile, he said his two college-aged sons, who have grown more aware of gay rights issues while on campus, have tried to persuade him that the government should withdraw from the marriage business altogether, leaving it up to churches and other institutions to define the rite on their own.

"That's a solid argument," Walker said. "I personally may not embrace that yet. But that, to me, is a bigger question... I get their concerns."

Walker's reticence to wade outside economics-centered topics is not entirely recent. Earlier this year, he declined to take sides in a foreign policy rift between Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul ("I don't know that you could put me in either camp, precisely," he said in August). He's been somewhat ambiguous when it comes to specifics on his immigration reform position, as well.

If Walker's 2016 platform is still very much in the construction phase, he is eager for people to look beyond his battle with the unions as an end unto itself, and hopefully see the changes he's been able to implement in Wisconsin, including widespread education reform.

"I think in not only writing this book, but writing it in a way that's pretty interesting, we are able to tell [about] the other things we did," Walker said.

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