Will the Republican Party return to its Midwestern roots? Until recently, the possibility seemed remote, thanks to the shift of power to the South and the Sunbelt. But with Scott Walker’s rise in the 2016 presidential contest, it’s worth asking: What is left of the Midwest in 21st-century Republicanism?
Whatever comes of his presidential ambitions – he is under attack from all sides – the Wisconsin governor is trying to tie his story to the history and traditions of the Midwest, the ideological flyover country that has nevertheless produced a new wave of leaders. Ten of the 12 Midwestern states currently have Republican governors.
Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio are all either “purple” or “blue,” with urban as well as suburban and rural populations. Barack Obama captured all of them in two elections, and even Indiana went for him in 2008.
No Republican can effectively serve these diverse electorates by simply declaring himself “against” government or by rousing the conservative base. The emphasis falls instead on claiming to promote what one of the greatest of Midwestern Republicans, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, called “efficient, honest and sound government.”
You can hear echoes of this approach from Walker, who has repeatedly drawn a bright line between beltway and statehouse Republicans. In November 2013, for instance, a month after the federal government shutdown that marked a low point of Republican politics in the Obama years, he wrote:
“In Washington the fight is over ‘fiscal cliffs,’ ‘debt limits,’ ‘sequesters’ and ‘shutdowns.’ In the states, Republicans focus on improving education, caring for the poor, reforming government, lowering taxes, fixing entitlements, reducing dependency, improving health care, and creating jobs and opportunity for the unemployed.”
More recently, Walker has said that while his policies in Wisconsin place him at the “polar” end of the spectrum from his state’s celebrated lineage of progressives, “I actually think I’m a progressive too. I think I fit in that tradition.”
Opponents say his claim is disingenuous given his calls for budget and higher-education cuts and in particular his campaign to weaken Wisconsin’s public-sector unions by curtailing their collective-bargaining power.
And Walker has drawn criticism for what can seem naïve or outmoded views of the obstacles facing many Americans today. “In America, the opportunity is equal for each and every one of us,” he said in January.
A growing number of conservatives disagree. “The data, unfortunately, do not seem to support Walker’s optimistic claim,” the policy writer James Pethouthokis said in National Review Online. “Opportunity in America is neither optimal nor acceptable. Family structure matters. School quality matters. Where you live matters.”
Yet this criticism touches on the attraction of the Midwestern Republican – the feeling, even at this late date, that the middle of the country lies closer to the ideal many Americans have of themselves.
“No one here cares about anything other than your work ethic and your kindness and your competence,” Nickolas Butler wrote in his 2014 novel “Shotgun Lovesongs,” set outside Eau Claire, Wisconsin, during the recession-driven winter of the American dream.
As it happens, Walker narrowly lost Eau Claire County in 2014. It is a reminder of the divisions he and other Midwestern Republicans face as they govern. The lessons they learn may shape the case one or another may be making to the nation in 2016.
Sam Tanenhaus, author of “The Death of Conservatism,” is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.