There are a few reasons Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is flying high right now in the early Republican presidential sweepstakes, but none is mightier than his record of sticking it to organized labor. This is the man who, after all, staved off a recall election once he was successful in changing state law to severely restrict the negotiating power of public-employee unions even after thousands and thousands of protesters raised a ruckus at the Capitol in Madison. Nowadays, when he isn’t running for the White House prize, he’s back home again supporting a law that would make Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state. That would end a worker’s requirement at an organized company to join the union or at least pay dues.
Labor despises right to work; conservatives love it. Most hold nothing but contempt for unions. So when Walker answers a question at the Conservative Political Action Conference about how he would handle ISIS and says, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” the right’s true believers were ecstatic. When his spokeswoman later added a clarification that he really wasn’t comparing union members to terrorists, she didn’t really need to bother.
The annual CPAC meeting always closes with a straw poll. A Paul always wins. Ron Paul took the prize several times; Rand Paul has inherited the top spot, three years in a row now. But Scott Walker, who was fifth in 2014, ended up a strong second, zipping past Ted Cruz, among others. And Jeb Bush, who mounted a major effort to show well, ended up in fifth. Did I mention this was a conservative gathering, where Bush was booed during his appearance?
Walker is definitely the Republican flavor of the month. He’s made a couple of really red-meat speeches, and even when he refuses to say whether he believes that Barack Obama is a true Christian or loves America and gets ridiculed in the press for not answering, he scores positive points on the right. When he rails against the reporter “gotcha questions,” he taps into another hatred.
Even more than labor unions, conservatives despise media — except for Fox News and a few people who call themselves journalists but who are really advocates for right-wing politics. Those guys insist they are the exception to the rule that most of us are liberal hacks, with a double standard who go around harassing God-fearing conservatives with abominable “gotcha questions.”
It’s a funny thing about gotcha questions: Politicians and their supporters can’t stand them. Unless, of course, they’re being asked of their enemies. Another funny thing about “gotchas”: they’re one of the ways the newsperson does his or her job.
We’re supposed to throw out the tough, skeptical question, as opposed to simply regurgitating whatever position statement the candidate is selling on any particular day. That candidate’s job is to give an answer, preferably not one that embarrasses. And if one of them doesn’t do well, we pounce. What’s the point, you ask?
The answer is that running for election is partly a trial by fire. The high-office wannabe should demonstrate how he or she would respond to the withering pressures of the job if chosen by the voters.
If a few gotcha questions are a problem, imagine the damage that can be done if the flub involves some incredibly difficult, sensitive diplomacy where a misplaced word can mess things up big-time. Imagine trying to deal with the likes of Vladimir Putin or Benjamin Netanyahu, or others who are always lurking and trying to get their way with America. Of course, to be fair, Walker’s point is that he’s shown he’s no slouch when it comes to toughness. Let’s see how he stands up when the other Republican candidates start playing gotcha with him.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.