Walker conspicuously inconspicuous

The last time I attended CPAC, the event that draws all elements of the right under one roof to debate, discuss, duke it out, and dissent amongst itself, Scott Walker dominated the event. He wasn’t there…it was 2011, and all the venue’s TVs were tuned in to coverage of the revolt happening in Madison over the governor’s reforms to collective bargaining.

Images of busloads of activists storming the capitol (both in Wisconsin and Egypt, incidentally) dominated the news and the conversation.

This year, Gov. Scott Walker, now an oft-mentioned 2016 presidential candidate, skipped the Conservative Political Action Conference entirely. It was a good move.

Headliners this year included right-wing rising stars as Sen. Rand Paul, who won the conference’s meaningless straw poll; Rick Perry, who gave a fiery speech around states’ rights; Newt Gingrich, who urged conservatives to focus on solutions, not demagoguery; Sarah Palin, who fired up the crowd with a homeschool rendition of Green Eggs and Ham; and others, each of whom represented a unique corner of the broad tent under which conservatives gather.

The event wasn’t without mention of Mr. Walker and the reforms Wisconsin and other states have embarked on. In one panel, RNC chairman and former Republican Party of Wisconsin chairman Reince Priebus offered that the Wisconsin model of a fully unified conservative army can accomplish seemingly daunting objectives like loosening the grip of public sector unions on public policy. Mr. Priebus also offered that the Wisconsin model includes year-round engagement in communities, a strategy that’s borne out by what’s going on the ground.

Mr. Walker’s been mentioned among the top three contenders for president, so why would he skip such a prestigious, high-profile event? The Washington Post has some theories that I find partially plausible:

The Post says Mr. Walker has to focus on his re-election. We agree – we said when the race between Mary Burke and Gov. Walker first crystallized that he underestimates her at his own peril. Since he’s taken heat for out-of-state trips already, it seems he’s heeding such admonitions. But I disagree with the Post that “going to CPAC puts every Republican politician in danger of saying something damaging.” Mr. Walker’s message discipline has been extraordinary, so that suggestion is dubious.

The Post also says that Mr. Walker doesn’t need CPAC. The conference is for lesser-known rising stars to have their moment. I disagree that Mr. Walker is the nationally known conservative superhero such a statement implies, but the guv certainly isn’t in dire need of a CPAC stage, unlike the hoards fighting for the adoration of every grassroots activist in attendance.

The Post also says Mr. Walker benefits from being mysterious this far out, as well as staying out of the media spotlight/scrutiny. Both thoughts carry some weight.

But in totality, the real reason Mr. Walker’s dodging of CPAC is wise ties in with his campaign message of distancing himself from Washington politics, which we also savantly blogged about some time ago. Hobnobbing at a ritzy venue in America’s center of corruption, Washington, runs contrary to his populist, pro-grassroots message and style.

Mr. Walker has a strong appeal with the average working American, who at least tangentially knows about his efforts to fight corrupt bargains in Wisconsin and the resulting budget turnaround here that’s led to billions in tax cuts.

Mr. Walker had nothing to gain but some additional notoriety by attending CPAC. Furthermore, skipping CPAC sets him apart from the aforementioned hoard much more than even the most rousing speech. Plenty of rousing speeches were given at CPAC.

Further still, CPAC is a conference mainly attended by young people, often dominated by Paul enthusiasts. This year, Rand Paul won the aforementioned meaningless straw poll. Mr. Walker has few issues with the younger conservative demographic. In reality, and in reiteration, Mr. Walker’s message appeals primarily to the Reagan coalition of working, rural, suburban, average Americans whose interest in something like CPAC is minimal.

Skipping CPAC was the right choice.


About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.