He is balding and — even his supporters would concede — a little boring. So how has Scott Walker, the governor of the midwestern state of Wisconsin, suddenly pulled into the front rank of Republican candidates for president? With neither an instantly recognisable name — like Jeb Bush — nor a balloon-sized ego that craves media attention — like Chris Christie — Walker reached near-parity with Bush in the polls this week in the electorally pacesetting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
In an era where politics has become increasingly intertwined with celebrity Walker, the 47-year-old son of a bookkeeper and a Baptist minister, has ploughed a very different furrow, earning his stripes in the bare-knuckled world of state-level politics, far away from a detached and deadlocked Washington.
While rivals such as Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and Tea Party darling, were grandstanding around the capital shutting down the Federal government, Walker’s pitch is that he was workin’ in Wisconsin, bashing the unions, balancing budgets and slashing nearly $2 billion worth of taxes.
“If you are not afraid to go big and bold, you can actually get results,” Walker told the audience at a major conservative conference in Iowa last month, noting his three election victories in Wisconsin had come in a state that has voted Democrat for president for more than 30 years.
Cutting taxes and regulation to spur growth is his pitch for bringing a “transformational change” to America. For many Republicans, sick of Barack Obama’s celebrity presidency and the Washing-ton media cabal they feel has unfairly doted on America’s first black president, “boring” is actually part of the excitement currently building around the Walker candidacy.
He is the Obama antidote, the ordinary Joe who posted a photo of his bathroom sink and a tin of scouring powder on his Twitter feed, revealing that he and his wife, Tonette, were at home. “I’m cleaning the bathrooms & she is cleaning the kitchen,” he wrote. “How Romantic ...”
Deliberately prosaic, Walker eschews the wit or snark that lit up the two tech-savvy Obama campaigns, but shops at thrift stores and relies on scouring powder and elbow grease to clean his bathroom, just like the rest of working America.
His backstory is short, but compelling. Born to blue-collar roots, Walker quit university and took a job to support his parents and then never returned to complete his degree, his life overtaken by raising a family and pursuing the conviction-politics that took him to the governor’s mansion.
And while there are Democrats who have questioned whether America can really have a high school-educated president in the era of the knowledge economy, that might well be under-estimating the strength of America’s tradition of anti-intellectualism.
The myth of the log-cabin president has always been just that, but outside the educated, urban elites large swathes of America still instinctively extol the virtues of real-world achievement over book-learning, as the widespread frustration with Barack Obama’s professorial demeanour attests.
Last, essential to any successful US election campaign, Walker also has access to money — both a network of 300,000 small donors compiled from his three election fights, as well as huge potential support from anti-tax mega-donors such as the Koch Brothers.
The question is whether this curious blend of quiet man and red-clawed, fiscal firebrand is a winning package — first in the Republican primary fight and then in a general election contest against Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democrat nominee.
As the polls suggest, Walker has a very decent shot at clearing the first hurdle. As an evangelical Christian and proven budget-cutter he has the ability to unite both the socially and fiscally conservative wings of a heavily divided Republican party. It is the second proposition — beating Hillary — that will test not only Walker’s broader appeal as a candidate, but also how far Obama and his own urban coalition of young people, women and ethnic minorities have managed to move the beating heart of America these past seven years.
At the age of 47, Walker is a whole generation younger than Clinton, and yet paradoxically his evangelical Christianity, his apparent uncertainty over evolution, his bloody confrontations with the labour unions and his belief in supply-side economics seem to hark back to an altogether earlier era.
Republicans might be nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, but it is far from clear that with the economy recovering and after decades of growth in government spending (under both parties) a majority of Americans will want to follow Walker in search of a better tomorrow.