Laying Low

THE WALKER TEAM MUST BE IN A PANIC! -Overheard at a bar.

The debate revealed Scott Walker to be this round’s Tim Pawlenty, a decent enough chap but one who lacks the luster to be president. He was boring. He was bland. He didn’t offer much in the way of substance. He seemed a bit out of his league. He disappointed.

Those are the things some armchair pundits and even some real ones claim, dismissing the chances of Scott Walker following his inaugural “performance” in his first national debate.

These people aren’t as smart as Scott Walker, I dare suggest.

First, if you haven’t yet accepted the premise that Walker plays the long game better than almost anyone, you’re not paying attention to the unlikely Wisconsin warrior. Walker is a grand champion player of the political game of chess; he has a remarkable prowess for knowing how he’ll get to checkmate even before the game starts.

Now that that’s established, the imperative everyone seems to be overlooking in their lust for the flavor of the moment: marathonian strategy.

Keeping in mind that I don’t keep in touch with anyone on the Walker campaign outside one-off run-ins at Madison-area cigar bars, and that most of this is basically high-minded wishful thinking, the strategic wisdom of engineering an underwhelming debate showing is a sound way to manipulate the expectations game. By doing less-good than most people thought, a fair gaggle of voters turned to someone else with the impression that Walker is indeed this cycle’s Pawlenty.

His slide in the polls most likely induced the “panic” bar comment (and the sentiment compelling the comment out in the hinterlands). According to Fivethirtyeight.com (a sort of Candyland for political geeks), Walker lost ground in every post-debate poll, the only candidate to take such a hit. My gal Fiorina, by contrast, who needed a moment in the sun, gained an average of six points.

Those voters are not gone for good, and team Walker must know that they’re essentially borrowing Walker supporters to some other candidate, until such time as that candidate crashes and burns (ehhemDonaldTrumpehhem).

At the subsequent debates, steadily more entertaining, sound-bitey performances by Walker will manage expectations like a good supervisor manages unruly employees, offering little bits of carrot at planned-out moments along the way, eventually paving the way for a plurality of voters to see Walker as the solidly conservative, sufficiently entertaining, and the reliable, tough leader America needs at the apex of an era where the government’s tentacles have relaxed their grip around America’s enemies and tightened them around the neck of Mom and Pop and everyone who has a job in flyover country.

Walker not only set expectations much lower for the next debate, at which I suspect he will begin to pull the rope that unfurls the sail, but he took advantage of a second strategic imperative: he took himself out of the mainstream media limelight again, which I have postulated is the best thing for him to pave the way to eventually winning a plurality of Republicans and avoid being the mole the media whacks next.

Third, Walker set the stage for being underestimated, not just within the context of debates, but in a general view of the election. Goading his opponents into underestimating him, which has consistently been his opponents’ death knell and is generally not a wise strategic thing to do, is tantamount to a direct attack on their campaigns – ceding the element of surprise to one’s opponent is a self-inflicted wound.

Those who have underestimated Walker have typically ended their election night parties by crying themselves to sleep.

Fourth, he didn’t screw anything up. By being cautious, he was able to get the lay of the land, stretch his legs, and remain a choice nearly all Republicans can happily vote for. In other words, the ship of fools captained by Donald Trump will sink and leave Walker as the semi-enthusiastic choice of the plurality whose general election campaign hadn’t been written during the primary.

To further muddy the creek of metaphors this column has become, I suspect Walker’s references to the campaign being more akin to a marathon than a sprint is him revealing his way of thinking in a colloquial way. He’s just not worried, and his supporters shouldn’t be, either.

Pundits tend to forget that poll numbers move in two directions, and that it’s still early. They also forget that polls don’t matter much: just ask a pollster asking about gay marriage ten years ago. Ask President Rudy Guiliani. Ask President Hillary Clinton. And as Fivethirtyeight puts it, Trump is doomed. While Trump’s campaign is a free-for-all, or a skydive without a parachute, Walker’s campaign is under careful control.

The fact is that presidential campaigns take place on a higher level of reality than most armchair or in-fact pundits are capable of understanding. Walker’s in it for the long haul.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s an armchair politico, veteran of several campaigns, and communications specialist. He's the communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.