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9 Puzzling Scott Walker Moments That Led To His Downfall

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker  speaks at a news conference Monday in Madison, Wis., where he announced that he is suspending his Republican presidential campaign.
Morry Gash
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at a news conference Monday in Madison, Wis., where he announced that he is suspending his Republican presidential campaign.

Scott Walker may have never had a big "oops" moment like then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry did in 2012. Instead, the Wisconsin governor had lots of little "oopses" that contributed to his political downfall and eventual withdrawal from the GOP presidential race on Monday.

For as much promise as the two-term Midwestern governor showed, there were also noticeable missteps and alarming falters along the way. After a surge in Iowa at the beginning of the year, the nascent beginnings of a campaign seemed ill-prepared to get him up to speed or correct the troubling signs.

Some cautioned his rise was happening too fast, too soon. His ever-expanding campaign promised he would correct course, but throughout the spring and even after he officially launched his presidential bid in July, the stumbles on foreign policy and more continued, along with flip-flops and hesitancy to take stances on issues of the day.

Eventually, they all added up to make his campaign literally an asterisk in the polls. On Monday, he pulled out — putting a heavy dose of blame on GOP front-runner Donald Trump's personal attack-ridden campaign — but the Wisconsin governor also has himself to blame.

Here are some of Walker's most memorable missteps that would eventually help derail his campaign:

1. Union protesters = ISIS?

After a well-received speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a response to a question about international preparedness and terrorism instead made all the wrong kind of headlines. "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world," Walker answered. While Walker's successful take-on of public sector unions may have been his most successful selling point, the tone deaf comparison played badly and overshadowed an otherwise good appearance. His campaign moved quickly to clean it up, but the damage had been done.

2. The curse of the Europe trip

It sometimes doesn't turn out so well when a presidential candidate goes across the pond. Though Walker's February trip was billed as a trade mission for Wisconsin, it was also needed for the soon-to-be candidate to beef up his international credentials. When pressed on foreign policy in London and eventually on his views on evolution, Walker didn't even try to hide what he was doing. "I'm going to punt on that one as well," Walker said. "I'm here to talk about trade, not to pontificate about other things."

3. Falling into the 'Is Obama a Christian?' trap

Walker was supposed to be one of the more serious 2016 candidates and not fall victim to the traps that have caught other past Republican presidential hopefuls. But when asked in February if he thought President Obama was a Christian, Walker demurred.

"I don't know," he told the Washington Postat the National Governors Association conference. "You've asked me to make statements about people that I haven't had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian?" Despite the criticism he faced, just last month, Walker again wouldn't take a position on the president's religion, which is Christian.

4. Immigration evolution

Once a supporter of the McCain-Kennedy 2006 immigration overhaul bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for some in the country illegally, Walker's position evolved quite a bit once he became a national candidate. During this campaign, he said he backed no form of amnesty whatsoever. "My view has changed. I'm flat out saying it," Walker said on Fox News Sunday in March. "Candidates can say that; sometimes they don't."

5. Ethanol flip-flop

In a push to win Iowa, Walker again shifted — this time on renewable fuels — and said he would back a federal ethanol mandate after once being highly critical of it.

6. Reagan and air traffic controllers

Sometimes, other things Walker said left many political observers scratching their heads. At a February Club for Growth Summit, he called President Reagan's decision to bust up a 1981 air traffic controller strike "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime."

7. 'Handful of reasonable' Muslims

Last month, Walker also seemed to suggest he believed the majority of Muslims were extremists. In shaming Obama for not labeling some terrorist groups as "Islamic," Walker said this: "We've said it repeatedly, it's radical Islamic terrorism, it is a war not against only America and Israel, it's a war against Christians, it's a war against Jews, it's a war against even the handful of reasonable, moderate followers of Islam who don't share the radical beliefs that these radical Islamic terrorists have." His campaign never fully walked back the statement.

8. Great Wall of Canada

Just a few weeks ago, Walker had another confusing gaffe on NBC's Meet the Press. Trying to boast of his tough border enforcement policy, he suggested that a wall along the Southern U.S. border with Mexico wasn't enough.

"Some people have asked us about that in New Hampshire," Walker saidabout the possibility of a wall along the Northern border with Canada. "They raised some very legitimate concerns, including some law enforcement folks that brought that up to me at one of our town hall meetings about a week and a half ago. So that is a legitimate issue for us to look at."

After the remarks were widely panned, Walker tried to distance himself from the comments, saying his words had been taken out of context.

9. Rapidly changing positions on birthright citizenship

One of the most confusing and potentially damaging moments in the final stages of his campaign may have been an ongoing back-and-forth with himself on exactly what he believed on birthright citizenship. After Trump proposed repealing the practice, Walker first appeared to agree with the idea. "Yeah, absolutely, going forward," he said at the Iowa State Fair.

Days later, he then said he wasn't going to weigh in. "I'm not taking a position on it one way or the other," he told CNBC.

Then, finally, a week later, Walker did a complete 180, saying he wouldn't change any part of the 14th Amendment that guarantees birthright citizenship. "Well, I said the law is there. And we need to enforce the laws, including those that are in the Constitution," he told ABC.

The waffling and shifting answers only reinforced the idea that Walker would move with the political winds and was ill-prepared on tough questions.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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