The New York Times reports here that Scott Walker has suspended his campaign for the presidency. This is too bad for Walker. He is an able and determined man, and he was riding high in the polls in Iowa, at least, just a few weeks ago. But what does his downfall tell us about the bigger picture of the race for the Republican nomination for the presidency?
I have argued here and here that the rise of Donald Trump was made possible by the failure of the Republican Party’s leadership to understand what its voters are really concerned about. It might appear that Trump has all by himself caused the political earth to move. After all, his entry into the race, and his meteoric rise in the polls, correspond exactly with Walker’s implosion over the last couple of months. Last spring, Walker was sending subtle signals that he would be the toughest Republican on the question of illegal immigration, but then Trump jumped in with his unique gusto and made Walker appear irrelevant on this issue.
But it is not really the case, I think, that Trump has caused the political earth to move. Rather, it has moved, and has seen it and exploited it. Trump did not make Republican primary voters suddenly start to care about illegal immigration. Instead, they were concerned about it, found that most mainstream candidates were unwilling to talk much about it, and then were swept away (many of them, anyway) by Trump’s willingness to address it so openly.
Republican leaders should pause to reflect on the interesting nature of the casualties so far in the race to win the nomination. It should not be surprising that someone like Jon Huntsman or Arlen Specter would run campaigns for the Republican nomination that would fizzle. These men chose to run as more or less liberal critics of the Republican base. It is small wonder that Republican voters would reject out of hand men who seemed to be lecturing them on their deficiencies.
But the casualties this time are different. Walker and Rick Perry (who was the first to drop out) have solidly conservative records as governors of important states. Neither of them tried to run by positioning himself as superior in enlightenment to the average conservative Republican voter. It is more than a little remarkable that their campaigns would fall apart so quickly (or, in Perry’s case, never really take off at all).
Their failures are a sign, I think, that many Republican voters are just not that interested in what the Party thinks they are and should be interested in. And if last week’s debate is any indication, the situation is not going to improve anytime soon. To all appearances, Trump vaulted over all of the competition when he entered the race by filling a kind of gap on the immigration issue. Yet at the debate last week, none of the other candidates showed any interest in addressing this issue. It seems to me that if they wanted to beat Trump, they would have to find a way to engage him on this issue. They seem determined instead, however, to talk about tax cuts and balanced budgets. There is nothing wrong with those issues, but Trump could not be in the lead except for the fact that many Republican voters are not as urgently concerned about those things as they used to be. If the other Republican candidates want to compete against Trump, they will have to face this fact.