Scott Walker put a good point in an unfortunate way a few days ago, and even people who ought to know better have gone into a feeding frenzy over it.
At a talk delivered to the Club for Growth on 28 February, Walker was challenged on his foreign policy credentials, the message from the membership being basically that he doesn’t have any. Walker’s response was less than felicitous:
Walker responded by ticking through his recent itinerary of face time with foreign policy luminaries: a breakfast with Henry Kissinger, a huddle with George P. Shultz and tutorials at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution.
But then Walker suggested that didn’t much matter.
“I think foreign policy is something that’s not just about having a PhD or talking to PhD’s,” he said. “It’s about leadership.”
Walker contended that “the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime” was then-President Ronald Reagan’s move to bust a 1981 strike of air traffic controllers, firing some 11,000 of them.
“It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world,” Walker said. America’s allies and foes alike became convinced that Reagan was serious enough to take action and that “we weren’t to be messed with,” he said.
But the infelicity is not because his underlying point is wrong. It’s more a matter of communication and rhetorical discipline.
Reagan’s summary handling of the air traffic controllers’ strike was, in fact, an exceptionally important foreign policy signal to the Soviet leadership. It was one of the most important things they knew about Reagan: that he didn’t fold under intense pressure, in what many in America saw as an ambiguous situation. He stood firm on principle, not wavering on his point that there is no right to strike against the public interest.
(Peggy Noonan has more here on the national security implications of the controllers’ strike, and how Reagan’s handling of it ensured that U.S. air defenses didn’t have to miss a step. The Soviets were well aware of these particular implications, and of the feat Reagan pulled off in keeping the national airways functioning, albeit – for a time – at a degraded level for civilian travelers.)
Walker’s substantive error here is minor. It lies in categorically calling this the most important foreign policy decision of his lifetime. For what it’s worth, I actually think that title goes to Reagan’s decision to reject the 1986 arms-treaty offer from Gorbachev in Reykjavik. By rejecting the offer, which required Reagan to give up SDI, he got Gorbachev to cave the following year. Reagan got not just a great deal: he got, as Benjamin Netanyahu would say, a better deal.
But. If I were a potential presidential candidate, I wouldn’t make that my opening gambit in discussing current events with the Club for Growth.
That was Walker’s greater error, one of rhetoric and communication. With the allusion to the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, he chose the wrong focus. Making such categorical assertions, even for illustrative purposes, just sets up debatable points as fat, juicy targets for pundits. What Walker needs to set up instead is the context in which it matters – in 2016 – that a candidate brings to foreign policy a record of withstanding pressure and getting things done.
He’s not there yet. He needs to talk about foreign policy. That doesn’t mean out-wonking the wonks. Real people can’t stay awake through that kind of exercise. And it’s increasingly obvious that it’s not an executive strength for foreign policy decision-making anyway. But there are plenty of things to say that are neither snore-inducingly bromide-ish nor overly reductive (the latter being where the Reagan-PATCO allusion falls).
I don’t think Walker could do better than to start with considering the kinds of points Sarah Palin addressed in a speech in May 2011, one that I wrote about at the time. He will need, of course, to talk about more than what criteria we should use to decide on uses of force overseas. But the other things will come naturally as events, and the overall topic, develop. Americans need to know more than just that Scott Walker will be a tough negotiator. They need to know, from a general standpoint, what he thinks America’s interests and national security problems are, going into 2016. They need to know what principles he would base his responses on.
The sitting president’s voice on those topics has become no more than sound and fury, signifying nothing. There’s a great void out there on this matter. The opportunity for setting the terms of the public debate is wide open.