It would be a big mistake to dismiss the presidential primary debates and campaigns as a circus. One of those 20 candidates for the GOP and Democratic nominations is going to have his or her hand on the red phone.
Despite the manic veneer to the recent GOP “debate,” generated to a great extent by the egotistical riffs of Donald Trump and gotcha questions from the Fox News panel, the Republican leaders offered important clues on how they would act if elected to the oval office.
But you have to listen hard, because campaign statements can be so scripted and opaque that they mislead or fail to inform voters on their real beliefs and intentions.
Take the track record Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, for instance, as a candidate for governor three times: he always said he would reduce the size of government, cut taxes and balance budgets. He has balanced the state budget (though not by business accounting standards), he has cut taxes a little, and he has cut the size of government by a smidge.
Job creation was at the center of his three campaigns, but once elected that overriding issue took a back seat to anti-union measures (Act 10, right-to-work law, and a reversal of prevailing union wages on local government construction projects) and to social issues (voter ID, abortion, drug testing for entitlement, voucher schools).
Partly as a result of lack of focus on job creation, his administration got about half way to his goal of 250,000 new jobs in his first four years. Other states like Ohio have done better. The decades-old pattern of slow job and business growth in Wisconsin tied Walker’s hands on cutting taxes in a major way. That, plus soaring health costs to state employees and Medicaid, put his budgets in semi-permanent crisis.
So, sometimes Gov. Walker does indeed follow through on what he says on the campaign trail; sometimes not so much.
Walker’s record also demonstrates that what the candidates don’t say can be more important. Candidate Walker in 2010 never telegraphed his massive push-back on public unions. But Act 10 became his signature initiative in his first term. His recall over passing that law propelled him to national attention. It is the theme of his book “Unintimidated.” Yet no one except for a handful of his advisors saw Act 10 coming.
Similarly in his 2014 campaign, he did not signal his intention to cut conservation and park programs and resources, to rewrite the “Wisconsin Idea,” to attempt to quarantine some government documents, or to slash the budget of the University of Wisconsin System.
So, even if you listen hard, you don’t always know what you are going to get from the candidates once elected.
Nonetheless, there are important directional road signs in hard-fought campaigns. Point in case: Walker amplified his hard right line positions during the Fox Q&A.
He had already pivoted to the far right on abortion, immigration, gun control and the environment. In this leg of the race, he went hard right on defense and foreign policy, not his areas of expertise.
He called for ripping up the Iran nuclear deal on day one of his presidency, for sending weapons to the Ukraine, for rebooting the anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and for putting NATO troops on the eastern border of Poland and in the Baltic nations. All of these moves would provoke the Russian bear under President Putin.
He is open to more U.S. boots on the ground in Syria.
You may put down those provocative comments to rhetoric for winning a GOP primary, but, remember, Walker sometimes follows through on what he says on the trail. He sounds, despite his calm demeanor, like he would be a bellicose president.
His remarks play to his “unintimidated” theme.
As he develops his positions on foreign and military policy, he needs to be mindful of these learnings on going to war:
1. Have a clear set of objectives and an exit plan. (George H.W. Bush did in Iraq 1 and George W. Bush didn’t in Iraq 2.)
2. Per Lee Dreyfus, former Wisconsin governor and WWII veteran: don’t go to war unless attacked. (Afghanistan qualifies.) Launch preemptive war only if there is a proven existential threat. (No so in Iraq 2.)
3. Develop full support of American people, whose sons and daughters pay the price of war. That means an Act of Congress.
4. Develop an international alliance. (George H.W. did so in Iraq 1.)
5. The Powell doctrine: Go in with overwhelming force for the fight and the post-war occupation. (Yes on Iraq 1; no on Iraq 2.)
6. Avoid nation building unless prepared to stay for decades as in Japan and Germany.
7. Don’t fight two wars at one time. (Napoleon and Hitler learned that the hard way; so did we when fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq.)
Wouldn’t you like to hear some of these cautionary thoughts amidst the sound bites coming from the candidates trying to impress the right wing of the GOP?